Advancing the Understanding of Autism

April 17th, 2014

Autism Awareness ribbon, via Wikimedia Commons

Autism Awareness ribbon, via Wikimedia Commons

April is Autism Awareness Month. At MIT, the search for greater understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a year-round pursuit. Roughly 45 MIT researchers from various disciplines are studying brain disorders, including autism—which affects approximately one in 68 children, according to new data released in March 2014 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“MIT has all the ingredients necessary for making spectacular progress in understanding and treating autism: top-notch basic science, intensely creative technology, and longstanding collaborations with Boston-area hospitals and clinics,” said Mriganka Sur, the Lilah and Paul E. Newton Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Simons Center for the Social Brain.

A breakthrough in identifying the underlying cause of fragile X syndrome—the genetic syndrome that is the most widespread single-gene cause of autism—has helped move autism research forward. Picower Professor of Neuroscience Mark Bear discovered that a genetic mutation, which causes mental retardation and also occurs in five percent of those with autism, is responsible for the syndrome.

Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Nancy Kanwisher ’80, PhD ’86, uses brain imaging and behavioral testing to investigate brain plasticity and the origins of autism. Kanwisher has identified small regions in the brain dedicated to specific tasks, such as facial recognition or language. She also notes that many people with autism have difficulties communicating verbally, making eye contact, and interacting in social settings. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of children, she hopes to learn whether there is a link between such deficiencies and specific areas of the brain.

In addition to identifying the origins of ASD, researchers are working on behavioral therapies to help those affected with it lead more rewarding lives. John D. E. Gabrieli PhD ’87, Grover Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience, along with researchers from the University of Cambridge and Yale, has proposed a study to test the effectiveness of “affinity therapy.” The study’s hypothesis is that by role-playing as popular animated characters engaged in real-life situations, therapists can help some children on the autism spectrum to develop social skills such as eye contact and joint play. The researchers will seek funding from the National Institute of Mental Health for the study.

As diagnosis rates rise, researchers acknowledge the importance of understanding autism for both scientific and social reasons. About 40 percent of adolescents with ASD are also diagnosed with anxiety, as noted in a recent MIT News article about neuroscientist Kay Tye ’03. Tye’s lab has found a link in the brain’s circuitry between impaired social interaction and anxiety. Like many researchers at MIT, Tye’s research is not explicitly focused on autism but could provide another critical piece of the puzzle in understanding this complex condition.

“I’m a basic neuroscientist,” is how Mark Bear puts it. “I have always believed that basic neuroscience is going to yield the fundamental understanding of brain function that will provide insights into new treatments.”

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