Harvard-affiliated Judge Baker Children’s Center is launching a research project to study autism. Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman, director and research director, respectively, of Harvard’s Infant and Child Study Center, in conjunction with Martha Herbert and Katherine Martien from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), are beginning to study the brain-processing mechanisms in children with autism and young children at risk for autism with the hope of gaining a better understanding of the disability.
Autism is a complex developmental disability with different causes that affects the normal functioning of the brain and behavior. The symptoms of autism typically appear at about 2 years of age and impact the development of social and communication skills. Although there is no cure, there are various treatment options. In addition, because there are no tests that can diagnose particular forms of autism, diagnosis and treatment of any form of the disorder rely only on behavioral characteristics.
Over the past few years and with the help of new technology, researchers have begun focusing on the brain to learn more about autism. Judge Baker’s new project, funded by Cure Autism Now, the National Alliance for Autism Research, and the Commonwealth Fund, aims to study basic brain processing in subjects with autism, with the long-term goal that these studies will determine predictors of autism that may help doctors diagnose the disability at an earlier age.
The researchers are wondering: In what ways do autistic children interpret information differently from children without autism? Are there biological indicators that may make it possible to diagnose or predict autism at a younger age? To address these questions, one project is going to study the brain activity of 50 autistic subjects, ages 3 to 8 years old. The study will also include a control group of children who have not been diagnosed with autism. “We are trying to understand the differences in brain patterns between the autistic children and the children in the control group. Does the brain detect changes in visual and auditory stimuli differently in the two groups?” said Snidman.