The Clinical Neuroscience of Autism Spectrum Disorder

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The McPartland Lab investigates autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from a clinical neuroscience perspective. Clinical work informs our understanding of the behavioral phenotype and helps us appreciate what is relevant from the perspective of individuals with ASD and their families. Guided by these clinical insights, we apply the methods of neuroscience to elucidate the brain systems underlying the unique strengths and vulnerabilities seen in people on the spectrum. 

ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Children with ASD are born with brains that process information differently. As they develop, these differences shape attention and social interactions to further influence neural specialization. This cycle, when left unchecked, leads to lost opportunities for learning; however, recognized and treated, this process of developmental specialization offers hope for improvement of impacted brain systems. 

The lab’s work is empirical but is tied tightly to a theoretical framework, the social motivation hypothesis, proposing that early occurring difficulties in social drive, social perception, or social anxiety interfere with the typical levels of interpersonal engagement and derail social development. We seek to improve the methods of neuroscience by developing novel and more realistic ways to measure social brain function and associated behavior. By more closely approximating true social interactions, our research will be better positioned to shed light on the actual challenges experienced by people with ASD. We aim to translate our research directly into clinical applications supporting earlier detection of children with ASD and more effective treatments that are informed by neuroscience. We believe that the interweaving of our roles as scientists and clinical practitioners enables us to conduct more responsible science and to communicate these insights directly to stakeholders in clinical settings. The objective of our work is to improve the lives of individuals with ASD and their families.