Reactions from IMFAR Travel Grantees: Day 2

The ASF Travel Grantees have been tasked with sharing some of the most interesting tidbits from the 2012 IMFAR Conference. This is the knowledge gained from day 2.

Marjorie Madfis – Thursday Keynote:

  • Geneticist Bernie Devlin said we will see an exponentially increase in genes and more potential drug treatments in the next few years due to pooling data and increase in funding of research. Collaborating and data sharing is critical to speed up research and discoveries.
  • Per Tom Insel researchers need to NDAR.

Melissa Shimek – Smooth Sailing Charting Successful Transitions in the Early School Years: Although, I am personally more interested in brain imaging, genetics, and phenotypes – I can not miss a session like this when I am currently moving my two daughters from early intervention in preschool to new interventions in kindergarten. Something almost emotional about the session was the review of STR student teacher relationships. I have had a horrible time with a teacher who either doesn’t know how to teach/relate to a child with ASDs or simply doesn’t want to be bothered. I can see the effect of this in my children. And, I hope it hasn’t caused further delays or damage. All educators need to be informed not just out of regular classrooms.

Meghan Swanson – Oral Session: Brain Imaging: fMRI cognition, motion perception…: Brain responses (in response to viewing biological motion), in conjunction with a relatively simple behavioral measure (SRS), provides very high diagnostic accuracy (sensitivity of 93%).

Deb Dunn – Stakeholder Luncheon: In today’s stakeholder luncheon, Marjorie Solomon discussed friendship in adolescence. She and her colleagues have studied friendship dyads. She compared friendship pairs — a child with ASD and a friend compared to two typically developing children who are friends. Friendships in the dyad with an individual with ASD were less intimate and there was less postive affect/joking around, but these friendships were much more egalitarian. Also, the friends of individuals with ASD ranked the friendship as higher quality than the friends in the typical dyad. Predictors of good friendships with ASD include good theory of mind, language skills, and abstract reasoning ability.

Beth Malow during Stakeholder’s luncheon: If a child is having sleep issues, a medical evaluation should rule out apnea, seizures, and GI problems. Behavioral interventions should always be a first step. Some children may also benefit from melatonin in addition to behavioral treatment. In general, families should make sure the melatonin is indeed melatonin (and doesn’t have Benadryl mixed in!), and should use a small dose (1-3 mg), 30 minutes before bed.

Mark Shen – Thoughts from Friday: David Amaral, Cyndi Schumann, Dan Geschwind, Gene Blatt, and Jill James presented findings from brain tissue studies, and they emphasized the urgent need for more brain donations. While acknowledging the emotional and difficult decision that a parent faces whether to donate their child’s brain who may have passed away unexpectedly, the scientists stressed that examining the cellular and molecular changes in postmortem brain tissue is the only way we will truly understand the brain pathology and its causes in ASD.

Two important luncheons took place today. The INSAR Community Advisory Committee organized speakers for an audience of ASD stakeholders, family members, and individuals with ASD. Beth Malow talked about sleep problems and effective treatments, Marjorie Solomon spoke about the importance of friendships in adolescents with ASD and how to help facilitate them, Sue Swedo gave a compassionate and well-received talk on the new DSM5 diagnostic criteria, and Matthew Goodwin spoke about new technologies that help improve the lives of individuals with ASD. I felt very fortunate to help organize this important event with Peter Bell (Autism Speaks), Alison Singer (ASF), and the rest of the INSAR Community Advisory Committee. It was extremely gratifying to help bring autism science to the stakeholder community, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the research we conduct.
The INSAR Student Committee, which I am honored to co-Chair, organized the Student Meet-the-Experts Luncheon where 15 senior autism scientists shared insights about their research, shared experiences from their career path, and offered advice on how to build a successful research career. The autism experts included: Simon Baron-Cohen, Bernie Devlin, Eric Fombonne, Daniel Geschwind, Connie Kasari, Ami Klin, David Mandell, Jamie McPartland, Nancy Minshew, Laurent Mottron, Charles Nelson, Laura Schreibman, Bob Schultz, Peter Szatmari, and Lonnie Zwaigenbaum. The luncheon was attended by 150 graduate students and post-doctoral scholars who represent the next generation of autism scientists.”

Meagan Thompson – Early Developmental Processes and Trajectories in ASD: Infant and Toddler Studies: In the Friday afternoon session entitled, “Early Developmental Processes and Trajectories in ASD: Infant and Toddler Studies”, Dr. Todd presented data on some attentional patterns of young children with ASD. Specifically, when watching shapes in the center of the screen, young children with ASD were just as likely as typically developing  children to disengage thir attention from these shapes and look towards a non-social stimulus that appeared on the side of the screen. In contrast to the typically developing children, young children with ASD were less likely to disengage their attention from the shapes in the middle of the screen when the stimuli that appeared on the side of the screen was social in nature.

Meghan Swanson – Thursday Keynote address: The momentum for gene discovery in ASD is high and due to pooling of data and increased funding. But, 5 years from now gene discovery is ASD will be passé: translation will be the key feature of ASD research.

Kadi Luchsinger – Postmortem Human Brain Research on Autism: I learned about the BEARS program at the MIND Institute. They have put together a wonderful video on the importance of brain donation, which is on their website. Very well done.

Meghan Swanson – Invited Educational Symposium 125: Biology-based Classification and Prediction in ASD: Promises and Pitfalls: Difficulty with doing research in high risk infants is that only 1 in 5 will go on to be diagnosed with ASD. So if endophenotypes are identified, the endophenotype may represent a risk for ASD and not ASD itself.

Kadi Luchsinger – Exhibit Hall: I learned about Lineagen, a company that offers cheek swabs for children who may be on the spectrum. They provide a full genetic array and provide support with their genetic counselors on staff.

Meghan Swanson – Oral Session: Stakeholder:

  • 1 in 5 high risk sibs from the infant-sib studies went on to have a diagnose with ASD
  • high risk children (who did not go on to get a dx) scored higher on the ADOS and lower on the Mullen when compared to low risk children (49% of low risk, and 35% of high risk where in the “class” with high DQ and low ADOS severity).
  • 2/3 of high risk siblings appear to be developing typically in terms of DQ and ADOS severity. The other 1/3 have either lower developmental functioning, higher ASD severity, or both.

Deb Dunn – Session 127: Pittsburgh study of children with high functioning ASD: Children are using visual strategies to remember verbal information. Using fMRI, researchers found increased activation in the inferior frontal gyrus, which is associated with visual processing, instead of areas of the brain typically associated with language (angular gyrus and middle temporal gyrus). Using the different region of the brain did not lessen the reaction time or accuracy of the children with HFA compared to typically developing comparison children. This lends to the belief that some children may develop compensatory strategies in verbal conditions.


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