In terms of research our goal is to increase the understanding of how the brain in autism analyzes information, what the underlying deficits might be, and to explore possible clinical interventions. Gained information would be of use for neurodevelopmental disorders in general.
The outside portion of the brain is a conglomerate of cells called the cortex. This part of the brain is arranged in modules within a hierarchical arrangement. Why do we concentrate on the cortex? From a neurological perspective, autism is characterized by abnormalities of language, complex behaviors, and seizures without motor paralysis, blindness or deafness. Neurologists associate this constellation of symptoms with cortical dysfunction.
The theme of our program, cortical modularity, therefore stems directly from the signs and symptoms that define autism, all which relate to how information is processed. An abnormality in cortical modularity is being viewed as a shared, general characteristic of the behavioral and cognitive abnormalities in autism, and thus an organizational framework for hypothesis testing. Cortical modularity in autism will be examined in several different ways including electrophysiology, neuroimaging, neurochemistry, molecular biology, and outcomes research aimed at potential interventions.
Other basic research will include the study of functional circuitry associated with the impact of stimulus saliency, novelty and typicality on information processing from the visual perceptual or local level processing to the conceptual level processing. Diffusion tensor and diffusion tensor tracking will be used to investigate microstructural abnormalities in white matter pathways between brain structures related to the signs and symptoms of autism and the molecular mechanisms involved in cell-cell interaction in the cortex of autistic patients and controls will be studied. Computer programs and algorithms will be created that are directed at object recognition for the different element of cortical circuitry and findings from the minicolumn study will be modeled as simulations of cell migration during brain development.
Applied research will focus on investigating the human side of the disorder through studies of lifespan, treatment, social, and vocational activities. Initially, case definition strategies will be explored by measuring variables on cases and controls and interview data on spouses and other relatives will allow the investigation of impact of autism on the family. Subsequent studies will include an attempt to define autism as a spectrum based on how far from the mean persons score on the Social Responsiveness Scale and clinical trials to study the impact of possible therapeutic interventions on automatic information processes.
Outcomes research seeks to understand the end results of medical, psychosocial, behavioral, and educational interventions. For individuals with chronic conditions, end results include those personal experiences that influence quality of life, morbidity, and mortality. Outcome research also helps in predicting the impact of various influences. As part of the diagnostic endeavors, the clinical core of the CECN will explore case definition and risk factors for autism. As an immediate benefit, these studies will give patients and their relative’s evidence about benefits, risks, and results of treatments so they can make more informed decisions.