Institute director discovers new way to measure autism

The director of GW’s autism institute helped find a new way to measure autism in boys.

Kevin Pelphrey, the director of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute, is one of the co-authors of a paper published last week that found brain imaging can improve treatment for autism in boys. The paper is the first major research to come out of the institute since Pelphrey joined GW this month.

Doctors quantified how the brain is working in autism patients and assessed the effectiveness of treatment for the first time, according to a University release. Researchers analyzed 164 brain images from 114 individuals and found the brain scans of social perception circuits indicated autism in boys.

Pelphrey said they conducted the research with functional magnetic resonance imaging – a technique that monitors brain activity in certain types of thinking. He said he started this research five years ago by comparing children with autism to those without autism.

“We didn’t focus only on boys, but our results showed that our technique worked best for boys,” Pelphrey said. “We are working on developing other approaches that will work best for girls with autism.”

Pelphrey said other researchers worked with him on the project – including the other authors of the paper and students who were undergraduates at the time.

“We hope to involve undergraduates at GW in this type of work in the future,” Pelphrey said.

The Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute was first discussed in 2010, and officials spent roughly a year searching for a director. Pelphrey was named the inaugural director of the institute and started in his position this month.

Pelphrey said the goals of this kind of research within the institute are to identify the “brain bases of neurodevelopmental disorders” to develop tools for detection and individually tailored treatments.

Malin Björnsdotter, an assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg and the lead author of the paper, said in an email that she had been researching social processes using neuroimaging for almost 10 years, but that Pelphrey inspired her to work in autism research during a lab visit in 2011.

“We have been working on this particular project since then,” she said. “It has been a true pleasure to work with him, and I look forward to future collaborations.”

Björnsdotter said autism is common and potentially devastating, but poorly understood. She said studying neural changes in children with autism provides important clues to how and why social abilities are disrupted.

“This knowledge may help us design interventions that help children-at-risk, not only in autism, but in many different disorders and contexts,” Björnsdotter said. “My goal is to develop new tools that can be used to help patients.”

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