Listening to people with autism

I generally focus on brain imaging and neuropsychology and plan to continue with that in the future. However, alongside these studies, I have launched Extraordinary Brains, a project aimed at direct communication with autistic people and outreach activities for both the public and other scientists and clinicians. Autistic people have often spent years thinking about what it means to live with autism and may therefore have a lot to contribute that scientists might have missed. 

I am running a line of experiments alongside my formal neuroscience studies, to collect information directly from the autism community. See the project website for more information, and our Facebook page "Extraordinary Brains". I will report any results back to the autism community through the project's blog and to the scientific/clinical community through scientific publications. I expect that Extraordinary Brains will pick up speed for real in 2018, after a trickling but very useful start in 2017. I've been very grateful to find how supportive and generous most autistic adults are in sharing their experiences and opinions. 

 

Sex differences in the brain in autism

Funded by an Explorer Award from the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), I am currently looking for sex differences (or similarities) in the brains of people with autism. I do this work in the lab of Prof. Michael Graziano at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University. Females with autism have been extremely understudied, in part because the disorder was first characterized in males. Brain imaging studies world-wide have scanned many more males than females, so we know less about the female autistic brain. It is also less well known how autism manifests in females compared to males.  

For this work, I use recordings of brain activity (functional MRI) from neurotypical adults and autistic people. Specifically, I'm currently studying sex differences in the organization and connectivity of the inferior parietal cortex/temporoparietal junction, which have been a focus of my research for the last years (see TPJ page). 

 

Communication between the cerebellum and parietal lobe in autism

It is very common in autism to have some abnormalities of the cerebellum. The cerebellum is often thought of as a motor coordination structure, but it also activates during complex behaviors such as social interactions and language function. In the lab of Prof. Michael Graziano, I analyzed brain activity in adolescent males with autism and matched control subjects (data shared by the ABIDE project). I found that a region of the cerebellum associated with social and executive functions (Crus II) communicated poorly with a region of the inferior parietal cortex/temporoparietal junction, which is also associated with social and executive functions. 

Owing in part to the outcome of this study, I have a growing interest in the cerebellum as an important structure in neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, ADHD, dyslexia and developmental coordination disorder. I'm hoping to get the chance to look at the cerebellum as part of the Kids Project and will study it in more depth in the future. 

 

Future plans

My long-term research goals involve increasing our understanding of the neural basis of the clinical heterogeneity in autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, with the aim to characterize strength and deficits in domains beyond the areas typically considered to be altered (such as social domain in autism and sustained attention in ADHD). For example, I am interested in how differences in sensory processing, motor function, spatial abilities, time perception, bottom-up attention, etc. might contribute to the higher-level deficits that determine the diagnosis. I will use a combination of brain imaging/stimulation and comprehensive neuropsychological testing to search for biological correlates of strengths and challenges in people with neurodevelopmental differences.

I also hope to do increasing amounts of outreach activities to get to know these populations, understand their needs, and explore how everyone's uniqueness contributes to the challenges and compensation strategies accompanying life with an neurodevelopmental disorders. The challenges faced by women is a topic of special interest for me. The Extraordinary Brains project will continue and expand as part of my research program, to continue the dialogue with the autistic community and parents of extraordinary children. I particularly value my collaborations with a team of diverse people, including clinical neuropsychologists and people with ADHD or autism.