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MRI machine (Credit: 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University) MRI machine (Credit: 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University)

Perspectives on Autism

SDSU researchers explore new avenues of autism research.
By Michael Price

This story appears in the fall 2017 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

Researchers’ understanding of autism has greatly advanced since the disorder was formally named in the 1940s. The earliest investigations into autism put forth a now wholly discredited notion that cold, detached parenting somehow stunted emotional and social growth. Today, scientists and families know that autistic characteristics exist on a spectrum; that many people with the disorder can and do lead long, healthy, happy lives; and that the root causes for autism involve a still-unresolved constellation of genetic and environmental factors. At San Diego State University, psychologists and special education researchers are helping to advance the state of the science of autism and explore understudied aspects of the disorder.

SDSU psychologist Axel Müller directs the university’s Brain Development Imaging Lab. Since he joined the university 17 years ago, he has brought in $10 million in research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore how connections between cells in the brains of typically developing children differ from those with autism spectrum disorder.

Searching for signals

Fall 2017 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
Fall 2017 Cover of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
Müller’s colleague, SDSU psychologist Inna Fishman, is using innovative brain imaging techniques to hunt for early signs of autism spectrum disorder in very young children. Researchers have not been able to reliably find divergences in brain development in children with autism until they are about 7. Funded by NIH, Fishman hopes to more finely tune brain imaging techniques to locate the small differences between the typically developing and autistic brains as early as possible. That could give clues to exactly which brain regions are involved in autism’s characteristic deficits in social and emotional processing.

At the other end of the life spectrum, SDSU researchers led by neuroscientist Ruth Carper are among the first in the country to examine how autism affects older adults. Carper is in the middle of an NIH-funded project to track cognitive and brain imaging data in people between the ages of 45 and 65 who have autism.

“One of the things that sets SDSU apart is that we study autism across the lifespan, not just in childhood,” Müller said.

All these prongs of research hint at an even bolder idea: that autism can be broken down into related, yet distinct, subtypes, each with its own causes and prognosis.

“One mystery is that some treatments [for autism] work well for some people but not for others,” Müller said. “Possibly what we know as autism is actually a bunch of different disorders.”

Imaging innovation

Answering these questions and others will become easier next year when SDSU’s first on-campus MRI machine comes online inside the new Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences Complex. Having an MRI machine in-house will give SDSU brain scientists more freedom to experiment with big ideas.

Müller and the new imaging center’s director, Martin Sereno, will be partnering with a private company to pioneer a new technology to allow researchers to obtain high-resolution brain imaging for people with low-functioning autism spectrum disorder for the first time.

A new collaboration between SDSU special education researcher Jessica Suhrheinrich and colleagues at the University of California, Davis, will help turn all of this fine-grained analysis of the brain and behavior into practical solutions. Suhrheinrich is a co-principal investigator on an NIH-funded project to discover the best ways to implement evidence-based treatments for autism into schools.

The grant adds to ongoing work on autism in high school by education researchers Laura Hall and Bonnie Kraemer.

“If we can identify factors that help a particular practice succeed in one region, we could help that practice be replicated in other regions, as well,” Suhrheinrich said.