IMFAR celebrates its 10th anniversary: A commentary on the changing face of IMFAR
by Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer, Autism Speaks
In San Diego last week, The International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) celebrated its 10th anniversary. Only a decade ago, prompted by parents, a small group of scientists pulled together the first IMFAR meeting. As program chair of IMFAR’s second meeting in 2002, I recall spreading the submitted abstracts out on a large conference table in my lab; working with my graduate students, we created the conference schedule by moving pieces of paper around the table’s surface! In 2007, when my colleague, Elizabeth Aylward, and I hosted the meeting in Seattle, we were thrilled that 1,000 people attended the conference. This year, only four years later, nearly 2,000 people attended IMFAR inSan Diego, representing a 10-fold increase in attendance in only a decade. The conference not only has changed in size, it has also changed in a number of other significant ways:
Autism as a global challenge
The international scope and participation has grown tremendously. Whereas the first meetings included scientists from Europe and a few from Asia, today’s IMFAR includes scientists from virtually all continents on the globe. Autism Speaks sponsors an annual meeting at IMFAR of the International Autism Epidemiology Network (IAEN), a group now comprised of over 100 scientists from 30 counties! Topics of this year’s IAEN meeting focused on how to deliver services to low resource communities, both in the U.S.and in developing countries. Travel awards were given to 13 international scientists from countries that included Oman, Turkey, Nigeria, Palestine, China, India and Argentina, among others.
Attracting a new generation of scientists
I am especially encouraged by the fact that the number of bright young graduate students and postdocs involved in autism research is rapidly growing. Graduate students and postdocs from diverse fields ranging from neuroscience to education shared their research results and had an opportunity to hear and interact with scientists from a wide range of disciplines. Thirty-seven students received travel awards to IMFAR; they travelled not only from around theUS, but also from the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Australia, and Israel. IMFAR provides a unique opportunity for graduate students to learn and be motivated to devote their careers to autism research. I was honored to participate in the “Meet the Experts” luncheon which provided an informal venue for students to talk in depth with senior scientists about their careers and areas of expertise.
People with autism and their families have a real presence in the IMFAR meeting
The inclusion of families and individuals on the spectrum as important and influential participants in the planning and conduct of IMFAR has steadily increased over the past decade. Community members are part of every IMFAR committee as well as the program planning. The committee I chaired this year that oversaw the INSAR board elections included a mother of a child with ASD and an adult with Asperger’s syndrome. At the meeting, parents and self-advocates with ASD attended lectures, gave presentations, and made opening remarks. Families with children on the spectrum could be seen throughout the meeting and especially enjoyed the technology demonstrations and booths. Video coverage was managed by Alex Plank, a person on the spectrum who hosts the website Wrong Planet.
Scientific progress provides hope for the future
Finally, I was struck by how both the breadth and depth of autism research has increased over the past 10 years. There are so many ways in which our thinking about autism has changed dramatically. To bring home this point, here are a few of the key themes and topics of research that emerged from this year’s conference:
- We now recognize that autism affects the whole body, not just the brain. Presentations reflecting this theme focused on studies of mitochondrial dysfunction, oxidative stress, sleep, gastrointestinal disorders and nutrition.
- The role of the environment and gene-environment interactions are now recognized as important etiological factors. Examples at this year’s meeting included studies on a variety of pregnancy and prenatal factors (fertility therapies, medication use, gestational diabetes, very low birth weight, maternal infection), neurotoxins (mercury, occupational exposures, air pollution), and specific gene-environment interactions.
- Autism can be recognized in infants less than one year of age, and interventions appropriate for infants and toddlers can alter the trajectory of children’s developmental outcomes. A wide range of new and innovative methods for detecting autism in infants were presented, along with several new methods for treating infants.
- There is an increasing interest in addressing the needs of two previously under-recognized populations of people with autism: adults and nonverbal individuals. I chaired a symposium on nonverbal autism in which scientists presented findings based on EEG that demonstrated that many children with autism who are unable to speak nevertheless have strong intellectual abilities and language comprehension. The same symposium illustrated how speech-generating devices can be effectively incorporated into early intervention to promote communication in children who have not developed speech. Studies on adults with autism were diverse, ranging from those focused on intervention strategies to improve quality of life, to how to promote independence and optimal health.
- The promise that technology holds for improving the quality of life for people with autism is more and more evident. This was especially clear in Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technologies Demonstration. The session was lively as adults and children with ASD and their families tried out the games and communication devices. We sponsored an international student technology design competition that attracted over 120 entries from around the world. I had the pleasure of giving the awards to the top three designs, all of which focused on the theme of helping people with autism connect to the world around them.
- Autism is no longer a “black box” – instead, the puzzle of autism’s underlying biology is being put together piece by piece. Using information gleaned from a decade of genetic research, neuroscientists presented papers that shed light on the role of the immune system in autism, identified several neural signaling pathways affected in autism, and described strategies for helping repair the brain’s synaptic function. One of the keynote lectures focused on the promise of a new technique called “induced pluripotent stem cells” which allows stem cells to be made from skin tissue. These cells are being coaxed into forming neurons and allow scientists to compare precisely the difference between neuronal functioning between persons with and without autism. These insights and technologies are providing clues to new autism drugs which are now being tested in animal models.
While I am happy to see the remarkable progress that has been made over the past decade, I am eagerly looking forward to the next 10 years, knowing that the pace of scientific discovery will only accelerate. I am hopeful that the science of the future will allow us to continue to make even more of a difference in the lives of people with autism of all ages.
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Video Credit: Alex Plank