Autism studies

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
May 8, 2008 9:00:00 PM PDT
What are the best methods for teaching autistic children? Hundred of research projects are underway, looking for those answers. One researcher here in New York is looking to the eyes for answers.

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg.

The research is going on right now, and it is open to people who might want to take part, both people on the autism spectrum and anyone else simply interested in the subject.

The investigation might one day help educators and therapists learn more about how the brain of an autistic person works.

Faces tell us if someone appears happy, angry or sad, and they cue us how to act or react. But many children on the autism spectrum cannot read faces. Facial recognition and interpretation is a challenge.

Ten-year-old Phillip Cohen is helping Dr. Nim Tottenham find how and possibly why developmentally-challenged children have trouble reading faces. He is part of a study that is looking in how the brain works when someone looks at a face.

Phillip has a diagnosis that's on the autism spectrum.

"When he speaks to people, he doesn't focus," his mother, Marsha Rubin, said. "He gazes off in another direction, and especially for learning and academics, he has to be able to concentrate better and communicate better."

In the study, subjects like Phillip are quickly shown faces and prompted where to look, while a camera records where their eyes are looking.

But more information will come from their brain.

Phillip and people in the study will also be shown face pictures while in a functional MRI machine. In the test, the study subjects will look at faces while the MRI records their brain activity.

Dr. Tottenham will get information from the brain of autism spectrum people and ordinary people.

"The purpose of the study is to really ask, in childhood, what's going on between typical and atypical development in face processing," she said.

Dr. Tottenham hopes this research will answer question about possibly early intervention in children with autism, particularly, is there a window in which the brain could perhaps be trained.

Learning to read faces is an integral part of our social interaction with each and a difficult problem for many children who are developmentally different. Anyone between age 6 and age 40 can take part in the study.

For more on the facial recognition study at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, call Tara Gilhooly at 212-746-5843.


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