NEWS | March 28, 2012

Participants needed for UC Davis MIND Institute brain-imaging study on motivation in autism


Researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute are seeking children and young adults to participate in a groundbreaking brain-imaging study aimed at understanding one of the most critical aspects of autism: motivation in learning.

"One of the areas that is 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, principal investigator for the study and associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the MIND Institute.

"We are trying to better isolate the kinds of strengths and challenges people with autism spectrum disorder have with respect to learning. We want to understand the neurobiology of those strengths and challenges so that we can help them to maximize their potential in life."

Solomon said that many of the behavioral treatments used today with children with autism spectrum disorders depend on learning. Yet, no one really knows how the brains of children with autism spectrum disorders work during learning.

 "It is ironic that one of our major therapies has never been studied in this way," Solomon said.

Solomon and her colleagues at the MIND Institute will be using behavioral evaluations and brain scans to study what neuroscientists call cognitive control and reward processing.

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 actually printed in red. Cognitive control is important in a variety of aspects of learning, including planning, problem solving and multi-tasking.

"We're trying to investigate why children and adults with autism 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 they use to compensate in tasks that are difficult for them."

To better understand the learning style of persons with autism, the MIND researchers are using computer-based behavioral testing. They will then use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to pinpoint the areas of activity in the brain while the participant completes a learning task.

Taking part in the study involves two visits, one to the MIND Institute and one to the UC Davis Imaging Research Center. During the visits, participants fill out questionnaires, complete computer-based brainteasers and puzzles, provide blood samples, and have their brains scanned using fMRI while completing a learning task.

The brain scans show researchers which parts of the brain are involved during the tasks.

To complete this ongoing study, the MIND Institute is seeking to enroll additional participants ages 12 to 40 who are either typically developing or who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The study already includes more than 100 children and adults with autism, but more are needed to reach the goal of enrolling 200 participants.

Study participants are compensated for their time, receive free assessments, and receive a digital file of their own brain scan.

Solomon said typcially developing children and adults, as well as those with autism, have something to gain from participating in this study.

"Some get the pleasure of knowing they are helping people with autism, and those with autism get free testing and may help us to better understand their unique gifts," Solomon said. "We take the time to discuss their results and answer their questions. They also are entered into a system of care that specializes in helping people with autism. A lot of families like that."

Those interested in participating in this should contact Jonathan Beck, the study coordinator, at 916-703-0298.

At the UC Davis MIND Institute, world-renowned scientists engage in research to find improved treatments as well as the causes and cures for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, fragile X syndrome, Tourette syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, genetics, pharmacology and behavioral sciences are making inroads into a better understanding of brain function. The UC Davis MIND Institute draws from these and other disciplines to conduct collaborative, multidisciplinary research. For more information, visit