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Dr. Nicholas Dodman

The Cause

One out of 100 children born today is affected by autism. And of the four million dogs surrendered to shelters every year, an estimated 2.2 million are put down.

What do these numbers have to do with each other? “Both are staggering,” says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor of clinical sciences at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “And both could see a significant drop because of new research.”

Over the past few years, Dodman has garnered attention for groundbreaking research into the genetic roots of canine obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD) and behavioral problems, work that is aiding treatment of conditions that too often have destroyed relationships between pets and owners and have cost countless dogs their lives.

The Gift

Now, with funding made possible by two longtime friends of the Cummings School, links are being explored between his research on animals and potential applications in the treatment of humans with similar psychiatric disorders.

Imagine the dog genome as a giant map of a dog’s entire genetic makeup. Dodman and his team have been able to pinpoint a region on chromosome seven that helps to confer susceptibility to OCD in Dobermans. “This research found a glitch, the proverbial needle in the haystack,” he says.

The discovery, published with University of Massachusetts and Broad Institute collaborators in Molecular Psychiatry magazine, has far-reaching implications. “Dog studies like this one can teach us not only about locating the genetic underpinnings of OCD in humans, but also shed light on other conditions like Tourette’s syndrome and autism,” he says. “We have found a new way of looking at the genetics of psychiatric illness in people.”

The Difference

The research has led to numerous collaborations for Dodman, including an imaging study with McLean Hospital and work with its OCD clinic, as well as a partnership with the Translational Genomics Research Institute and collaboration with researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Human Genome Research Institute. “We have also discussed patents that have arisen with Yale psychiatric researchers who have patented similar mechanisms of OCD relevant to treatment,” he says.

Dodman has a rescuing bent. At home he has two pets he saved from a shelter, a dog named Rusty and a deaf cat named Griswold. The cat often is startled by people walking up behind him, he says, but otherwise is “living the life of Riley.”

Of the hundreds of animals Dodman has treated over the years, it was a cocker spaniel who led to key philanthropic support for his research. Mac Emory and Jan Corning, animal lovers and benefactors of the Cummings School, became convinced of the value of Dodman’s work after many visits to his clinic at the Cummings School for treatment of Emory’s beloved dog. Emory’s and Corning’s gifts to the American Foundation created the grants that left Dodman “blinking with delight,” he says, and have since catapulted his research to new heights. The grants have also helped close the gaps between animal and human conditions and convert tragic statistics into real-life cures.