January 20, 2006

Autism project has international scope

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Tom Hazinski, M.D.

Autism project has international scope

Investigators from the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, have been awarded a TransCoop grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to develop an international collaboration in autism research.

The grant will help fund a series of studies to identify the developmental brain mechanisms involved in understanding and processing human actions. The award is for $33,900 Euros (approximately $40,000), with matching funds from Vanderbilt.

People with autism seem to have difficulty understanding the intentions, feelings and knowledge of others. This, researchers have suggested, could underlie the social and communication problems associated with autism.

Wendy Stone, Ph.D., professor of Pediatrics and Psychology and Tricia Striano, Ph.D., head of the Neurocognition and Development Research Group at the Max Planck Institute, hope to uncover how the brain processes the actions and action sequences of others, which is necessary for understanding another's motivations, intentions and goals.

“If another person takes a cup from my hand, my reaction will depend on my attributions about his behavior,” said Stone, an investigator for the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development.

“If I perceive him to be taking my juice for himself, I may become angry, whereas if I understand that he is taking the cup to refill it with juice for me, my reaction (and behavior) will be quite different.”

In the studies, Stone and colleagues will measure the electrical brain activity of children when they view films of people performing specific actions — both illogical actions (putting a shoe on one's knee) and logical actions (putting a shoe on one's foot).

The studies will involve both normally developing children and children with autism. Discovering whether children with autism differ in the way they process action sequences will help researchers identify the mechanisms that underlie both normal and abnormal patterns of development. Such information could help researchers identify early markers of autism and in the development of effective interventions.