Researchers in the Neuroimaging Core take high-tech pictures of the brain to study how it develops and functions in infants and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We use anatomical, diffusion and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the causes and biological mechanisms of ASD.
A major focus of this core is prospective longitudinal studies of infant brain development. Studying the brain during the first year of life, the most substantial period of neural growth and plasticity, offers great possibility for understanding the biological mechanisms underlying ASD. By mapping neural and behavioral changes in early infancy, we hope to uncover the relationship between developmental changes in the brain and the development of social skills and abilities.
In other words, how do changes in the brain support the emergence of new skills and social behaviors? How do early social experiences, such as interacting with caregivers, shape what connections are formed or lost in the brain? This type of work will shed light on the biological mechanisms that give rise to ASD and will inform existing knowledge of brain disruptions in ASD.
For example, studies have suggested that children and adults with ASD have reduced activation of the “social areas” of their brain, in keeping with the symptoms of the disorder. But this is still a "chicken and egg" question: Are these areas of the brain less active and therefore causing the symptoms of ASD? Or, do abnormal social experiences, happening perhaps for some other reason, then fail to properly shape the circuitry in the social brain?
This is just one question we hope to address in our studies of brain development and its relationship to the developmental unfolding of social behavior.
A second main focus will be leveraging sophisticated techniques, such as simultaneous eye-tracking and fMRI, to study the brain in a context that more closely resembles the demands of everyday social life. By using novel moment-by-moment behavioral measures of where people look onscreen and how engaged they are with what they're looking at, we're able to study how the brain functions when participants actively explore dynamically unfolding, fast-paced and complex social situations.
This type of research is especially critical for understanding brain function among individuals with ASD, who often encounter the greatest difficulty when faced with open-ended, dynamically changing scenes.
Avi Gates, an active, independent 3-year-old, does not have autism. But for two years, she was a participant in an autism research study aimed at changing the very nature of the disease. Learn why Avi's parent's chose to participate in autism research.
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