IMFAR Perspective from a Weatherstone Fellow
Guest Blog: Jen Foss-Feig, Weatherstone Fellow
Exciting advances in understanding brain differences in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) were a major focus of the first day of this year’s International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) meeting in Philadelphia. These findings have been precipitated by remarkable growth in technology and discussion at the meeting has focused on how new methods are being applied, as well as the areas that should be emphasized in future research.
One of the many highlights was Thursday morning’s Invited Educational Symposium, which involved talks on neurogenetics, an emerging field of research dedicated to finding relations among genes, behavior, and brain functioning. These topics have previously been addressed by distinct research groups and methodologies, making this avenue of integrative research a novel approach for the autism field. As individual differences among individuals with ASD are becoming increasingly clear, a major focus of neurogenetic research is to understand and characterize the heterogeneity observed in the behavioral presentation of children with autism.
The importance of studying unaffected siblings of those with heritable developmental and psychiatric disorders was also emphasized. Unaffected siblings share approximately 50% of their genes with their affected sibling, yet may also carry genes serving a protective function. As such, talks highlighted the importance of studying this unique population as a window into a better understanding of autism itself. One speaker explained that genes create a “vulnerable brain” which in turn puts one at risk for a disorder. By understanding how genes affect brain structure and function, we may be able to better understand risk for disorders such as autism, discover new potential medication targets, and develop novel approaches for behavioral intervention.
A new format this year brings together researchers interested in similar topics for Special Interest Groups. In the EEG and MEG interest group, researchers came together to discuss the current state of research on this topic, as well as promising new developments for the future. After discussing the current state of methodology, the larger group broke into smaller groups according to different research interests, including research on infants, sensory processing, social functioning, and language. Within each group, researchers were able to discuss their individual research projects, discover opportunities for future scientific collaboration, and brainstorm strategies for addressing obstacles related to data collection and interpretation.
Advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology and data collection techniques have allowed inclusion of younger children and infants in this important field of research. For example, by conducting brain scans during natural sleep, researchers have gained invaluable information about how language is processed in the brain of infants later diagnosed with ASD. By investigating functional changes occurring during specific vulnerable time points, scientists will ultimately learn how to develop early intervention programs that can affect the brain functioning in infants and toddlers.
IMFAR is bringing together scientists with diverse backgrounds and expertise to create new collaborations and encourage innovative, integrative, and translational research. With two more days of talks, poster sessions, and interest groups, the remainder of IMFAR 2010 promises to reveal even more exciting new findings and additional developments in research techniques, ultimately contributing to our knowledge on how to best understand and treat ASD.
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