Maya Eylon ’19 may have helped pave a way to diagnosing autism early in a child’s life. Between her junior and senior years, Eylon joined an international team of scientists in Israel for a summer-long research project studying the endocannabinoid levels in children with autism.
Endocannabinoids play an important role in a diverse range of neurophysiological processes including neural development, neuroimmune function, synaptic plasticity, pain, reward, and affective state. After she and her colleagues studied samples from 200 children—100 with autism, 100 without—they discovered that the differences in their endocannabinoid levels, before any treatment, were significant.
“Almost across the board, endocannabinoid levels are decreased in the children who have autism when compared to neurotypical children,” Eylon said. This could give doctors a biological sign to look for after infancy, rather than waiting for social signs to appear. Further studies are needed, but the team’s findings may also provide a basis for future research about whether medical cannabis would work as a treatment for autism’s behavioral issues that aren’t responsive to current treatments.
Eylon, who self-designed her own premed major through the Whittier Scholars Program, is well on her way to a career in medicine. Before joining the study in Israel, she had spent two prior summers conducting research in medical labs—including assisting on a study on rickettsia bacteria from patients in Nepal.
But joining the lab in Israel was of special personal importance to Eylon. Her family is from Israel and she was eager to spend a few months there, while flexing her growing biochemistry skills at the same time. After emailing almost 30 labs, the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem accepted. “The research was fascinating, so I jumped on board.”
She was halfway across the world, but Eylon felt relatively at home around the lab. She had just completed her organic chemistry course at Whittier, which gave her hands-on experience with techniques like gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, a method for identifying substances in a test sample. With that background knowledge, coupled with her prior summers devoted to research, Eylon skillfully navigated the busy laboratory.
She’s grateful for the experience, as well as for the financial support that made it possible for her to spend several months overseas: the Mary Davis Fellowship in Public Service. The fellowship supports students in internships or research related to economic development and the general improvement of the human condition.