Researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute are seeking adolescents to participate in a groundbreaking brain imaging study aimed at understanding one of the most critical aspects of autism spectrum disorders: how people with autism generalize things they learn to new contexts.
“One of the areas affected in many kids and adults with autism is their ability to learn in conventional settings. We believe this is because they have unique strengths and motivation patterns, which they use to tackle challenges,” said Marjorie Solomon, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and principal investigator for the research.
“We are trying to better isolate the kinds of strengths and challenges that people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have with respect to learning,” she said. “We want to understand better the neurobiology of those strengths and challenges so that we can help them maximize their full potential in life.”
Solomon said that many of the behavioral treatments used with children with ASDs, such as applied behavioral analysis, depend upon learning. However, no one really knows how the brains of children with autism spectrum disorders function during learning tasks.
“It's ironic that one of our major therapies never has been examined in this way,” Solomon said.
Solomon and her colleagues will use behavioral evaluations and brain scans to study what neuroscientists call 'cognitive control' and 'reward processing' to examine how people with autism learn.
Cognitive control refers to a person’s ability to flexibly process information and change actions depending on internal goals. It allows a person to read the word 'green' out loud even if the word is printed in red. Cognitive control is important in a variety of aspects of learning, including planning, problem solving and multitasking.
“We’re investigating why adolescents with ASD often show deficits in cognitive control and reward processing in laboratory tasks, and what brain regions are involved in these deficits,” said Jonathan Beck, the study’s coordinator. “We will use this information to understand the many strengths teens with ASD use to compensate in tasks that are difficult for them.”
To better understand the learning styles of people with autism, MIND Institute researchers will use computer-based behavioral testing. They then will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to pinpoint the areas activated in the brain while the participant completes a learning task.
Participation in the study involves two visits to the UC Davis Health System campus, one to the MIND Institute and one to the UC Davis Imaging Research Center. During the visits, participants will fill out questionnaires, complete computer-based brainteasers and puzzles, and have their brains scanned using fMRI while completing a learning task. The fMRIs show researchers which parts of the brain are involved during the tasks.
More than 100 children and adults with autism already are enrolled in the study. Additional enrollees are needed to reach the goal of recruiting 300 participants. The researchers are seeking participants between the ages of 12 and 17 who are typically developing or who have been diagnosed with ASD. Study participants will be compensated for their time, receive free assessments and will be given a digital file of their own brain scan.
Solomon said typically developing individuals, as well as those with ASD, have something to gain from participating in the study.
“Some get the pleasure of knowing they are helping people with autism, and those with autism get free testing that may help us to better understand their unique gifts," she said. "We take the time to discuss their results and answer their questions. They also become associated with a system of care that specializes in helping people with autism. A lot of families like that.”
Individuals who are interested in participating in the study may contact Jonathan Beck at 916-500-4674 or firstname.lastname@example.org.