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MIT's McGovern Institute researchers awarded $8.5M to study brain basis of autism and dyslexia

Two researchers at MITs McGovern Institute for Brain Research will head an ambitious new project to study the origins of autism and dyslexia, supported by a $8.5M grant from the Ellison Medical Foundation. The project leaders, Nancy Kanwisher and John Gabrieli, are prominent experts in neuroimaging and human brain development.

Autism and dyslexia are complex brain disorders that first appear in early childhood. Autism impairs social interactions and communication, and affected individuals may engage in bizarre and repetitive behaviors. Dyslexia is a learning disorder that manifests itself as reading difficulty despite adequate education and otherwise normal perceptual and intellectual abilities.

Little is known about the causes of either disorder, although both are highly heritable. In both cases, it is thought that the earlier treatments begin, the more effectively they help the child compensate. Thus, it is important to develop methods for early diagnosis, and scientists believe that non-invasive brain imaging may be a means to this end.

Human neuroimaging methods have advanced greatly over the last five years, and a major emphasis of the new project will be to translate these advances to pediatric neuroimaging. Brain imaging with young children presents many challenges, not least of which is their inability to lie still for long periods in the scanner. The McGovern investigators will collaborate with neuroimaging experts Larry Wald, Bruce Fischl and Ellen Grant at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), who will develop scanning coils designed specifically for childrens heads, along with new procedures to shorten scan times and methods to analyze data from brains that are not yet fully developed.

We expect these technological advances to radically improve pediatric neuroimaging and help us make major strides in understanding typical and atypical human brain development, comments Kanwisher, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience. Kanwisher, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, will lead the work on autism. Gabrieli, who is the Grover Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience, will lead the dyslexia component.

The researchers plan to study a cohort of children, scanning them at regular intervals to examine the development of brain systems that have been implicated in social cognition (for autism) or reading (for dyslexia). They hope to include children who, because of their family history, are at increased risk for autism or dyslexia and to compare them to controls with no special risk factors. The researchers will also look at children who have already been diagnosed, looking for telltale markers that could be useful for diagnosing and tracking the progression of the disorders. They also plan to examine the effects of therapeutic interventions, in the hope of identifying markers that will guide the development of more effective therapies. In the longer term, they hope to link their findings to future advances in understanding the genetics of these disorders. By combining both approaches, says Gabrieli, it may eventually be possible to develop genetic tests that will be easier and less expensive than brain scans.

Kanwisher and Gabrieli will also collaborate with Rebecca Saxe, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, who will focus on the development of neural mechanisms for social cognition to identify the earliest stages at which infants' brains become specialized to perceive other people and understand language. Other collaborators are Laura Schulz at MIT, April Benasich at Rutgers University, Maryanne Wolf at Tufts University, David Pauls and Matti Hamalainen at MGH, and Glenn Rosen and Albert Galaburda at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.


Contact: Charles Jennings
McGovern Institute for Brain Research

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