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International Society for Autism Research: International Meeting for Autism Research

May 28, 2013
by Hanna Stevens

The International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) is an annual scientific meeting, convened each spring, to exchange and disseminate new scientific progress among ASD scientists and their trainees from around the world. The first and primary aim of the meeting is to promote exchange and dissemination of the latest scientific findings and to stimulate research progress in understanding the nature, causes, and treatments for ASD. A second aim of the meeting is to foster dialogue among ASD scientists across disciplines and across methods.

The 12th Annual International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), the world’s largest scientific gathering on autism research, met Thursday, May 2 through Saturday, May 4 at the Kursaal Convention Center, Donostia/San Sebastian, Spain (see picture). Over 20 members of the Yale Child Study Center attended and were active participants in the scientific sessions.

Multiple presentations were made from work being done in the Yale Early Social Cognition Lab (ESCL). Kasia Chawarska PhD, Associate Professor in the Child Study Center and director of the Yale ESCL reports on the efforts made by researchers in her group:

“At IMFAR we presented a couple of talks on a series of prospective longitudinal studies that reported on prodromal signs of autism at 6 months. The prodromal signs included abnormal visual attention patterns expressed both in a context of two eye-tracking experiments (see picture) as well as in a context of a live face-to-face interaction with another person. These are the first studies to report on ASD-specific abnormalities at such young age and the first reports to link atypical eye tracking responses with behaviors arising during a live interaction. Fred Shic PhD, Assistant Professor, was senior author on the talk given by Kasia entitled “Decreased Social Attention in 6-Month-Old Infants Later Diagnosed with ASD.” He and multiple other lab members contributed to the work presented in the talk by Sophy Kim PhD, a postdoctoral associate in the ESCL, on “Atypical Social Attention Patterns in 6-Month-Old Infants Later Diagnosed with ASD During a Face-to-Face Dyadic Interaction.”

We also presented an extension of our earlier work on growth patterns in infants later diagnosed with autism quantifying in a rigorous manner the actual prevalence of atypical growth acceleration in ASD and documenting that growth patterns between birth and 24 months predict at a statistically and clinically significant level verbal and adaptive functioning at the age of 4. Daniel Campbell, PhD, postdoctoral fellow presented the poster during the meeting with these results entitled “Association of Early Generalized Overgrowth to Clinical Outcome in ASD.”
Lastly, we reported on the emergence of core symptoms in a prospective longitudinal sample at 12, 18, and 24 months. This extensive work involved in longitudinal follow up was presented in two posters, one by research assistant, Alexandra Dowd, in her work on the “Emergence of Social Deficits During the Second Year of Life in Infants with ASD” and one by former CSC researcher, Celine Salnier PhD, now at Emory University, on “Differences in Adaptive Socialization Skills in ASD Vs. Non-ASD Developmental Delays in the First Two Years of Life.”

The Yale Child Neuroscience Lab at the Child Study Center, directed by Kevin Pelphrey PhD, Harris Associate Professor, was represented in multiple posters and presentations throughout the meeting. Significantly, multiple junior faculty members who are key researchers in the Yale CNL presented work as lead or senior authors.

Roger Jou MD PhD, one of the newest junior faculty members in the department, was honored at the meeting with the IMFAR Neurobiologic al Dissertation Award. This was a remarkable achievement for Roger to receive this award given annually to a scientist/clinician for the best neurobiological doctoral dissertation in autism accepted by a university in 2012. Roger’s dissertaton research and other efforts within the Yale CNL were highlighted in multiple sessions. A junior mentee of Roger’s Jenny Leung, presented a talk on “Characterization of neural disconnectivity in autism: a large-sample diffusion tensor imaging study using Tract-Based Spatial Statistics.” (see picture). Roger was also the senior author for postdoctoral fellow, Daniel Yang’s, poster on “Decreased cortical thickness in autism spectrum disorder: a large-sample investigation using surface-based morphometry.” Lastly, Roger presented a poster himself of work he has been doing in collaboration with scientists oat Cleveland clinic, Stanford University and his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. This poster highlighted “A two-year longitudinal pilot MRI study of the brainstem in autism” which represented a paper that is now in press. Additionally, the results of this study have received coverage from the Simon’s Foundation and will likely be highlighted on their website in the next month.

Pam Ventola Ph.D., associate research scientist, was the senior author on one of the studies that was featured at the pre-conference press conference (more below). Avery Voos, a research fellow, presented this study on “Neural Mechanisms of Improvements in Social Motivation after Pivotal Response Training” which was featured due to the marked changes in neural imaging shown with this effective treatment (see Figure). Avery also contributed to the poster presented by Lexy Westphal, postdoctoral fellow, which was a research update on “Brain Response to Fearful Faces in ASD with Regression.” Lexy also utilized his training as a forensic psychiatrist at the meeting and participated in the first special interest group that has ever been held at IMFAR on autism and the criminal justice system.

Brent Vander Wyk, PhD, associate research scientist at the Child Study Center, was the senior author on a poster presented by a trainee in the CNL group, A. Ahmed. Their work was on “Functional Neuroimaging Correlates of Intentional Biological Motion Processing in Unaffected Siblings of Children with ASD.” Brent also collaborated on the work that Ilanit Gordon PhD, postdoctoral fellow, spoke about during her slide talk. She discussed ongoing work in the lab and in collaboration with Bar-Ilan University on “Oxytocin's Impact On Core Brain and Behavioral Features of ASD in Children.”

Laurie Anderson BA, a Child Neuroscience research fellow with Kevin Pelphrey, presented a poster in collaboration with multiple members of the lab and with Martha Kaiser PhD, associate research scientist as the senior author. Their study demonstrated “Neural Responses to Biological Motion in the First Year of Life: A Functional near-Infrared (fNIRS) Study Comparing Low- and High-Risk Infants.”

The McPartland lab of the Child Study Center also had an impressive range of presentations at the meeting. Jamie McPartland PhD, assistant professor in the CSC and the director of this group, was joined by other faculty members as collaborators in the work presented by his lab including Nicole Landi PhD, associate research scientist, and Linda Mayes, Arnold Gesell Professor. All of these faculty members were authors on the study presented by Peter Hashim, Yale medical student. This poster presented findings on the “Specificity of Atypical Neural Development for Language in Infants At Risk for ASD.” Jamie and Linda also collaborated on their study of “Gamma Synchronization During Face Processing Is Associated with Social Motivation” which was presented as a poster by Celine Cuevas, a Yale undergraduate student. Adam Naples, a postdoctoral fellow, was the principle author of a poster demonstrating on how “Adolescents with ASD Show Attenuated Neural Response to Reciprocal Eye Contact.”

Two fellows in the Sara Sparrow program for Clinical Neuroscience were first authors on posters in the meeting. Rachael Tillman BA presented her work on “Neural Sensitivity to Biological Motion Versus Audio-Visual Synchrony in Infants At Risk for Autism” in collaboration withothers in the lab and at the Autism Science Foundation. And Marika Coffman BS facilitated collaborations of the McPartland lab with researchers at Emory University with her work on the “Modulatory Effect of Context On Face Processing in Children with ASD.”

Other members of Jamie’s lab who attended the meeting include Aishani Desai BSc, a master’s student in the joint UCL-Yale CSC program who was first author on a poster entitled “Relative Contribution of Autistic Traits Versus Alexithymic Traits in the Neural Processing of Social Information.” Cora Mukerji BA, a recent graduate of Yale University and now a research assistant with the group, was the presenting author on a poster demonstrating that “ERPs Reveal Atypical Neural Response During Empathy for Physical and Social Pain in ASD.” Jamie himself gave an oral presentation during the IMFAR meeting on “Individual Differences in Affective Social Perception in ASD: Neural, Behavioral, and Psychiatric Contributions” which was a study in collaboration with the University of Washington.

The Child Study Center also was well-represented in collaboration with many other groups in the research presentations at IMFAR. Work ongoing between members of the department and past trainees and faculty who now demonstrate the excellence of autism research around the country is particularly compelling. Rebecca Muhle MD, PhD, a PGY3 resident in the Solnit Integrated Program, gave an oral presentation on her study ”Identifying Targets of ASD-Associated Chromatin Regulators in the Developing Human Brain,” a project ongoing in the Yale Genetics lab of Jim Noonan and in collaboration with alumni Matthew State, MD, PhD, now chair of psychiatry at University of California San Francisco.

The work of Matt State’s lab was included throughout the meeting and was particularly highlighted in the conference opening press conference, held on May 1 in order to focus on notable research being presented at INFAR. At that press conference, four out of the six speakers are or have been affiliated with the Yale Child Study Center—Kevin Pelphrey, Ami Klin PhD (a past professor of the CSC, now Chief of Autism and Related Disorders, Marcus Autism Center at Emory University), Joshua Diehl PhD, (past post-doctoral fellow at the CSC, now Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame), and Stephan Sanders MD (former post-doctoral fellow of Matthew State, now at UCSF).

Multiple presentations at the meeting demonstrated the connection of former CSC affiliates ongoing with the department. Julie Wolf PhD, Associate Research Scientist, continues to collaborate with Ami Klin and Warren Jones PhD (a past researcher at the CSC), as co-author on a poster discussing “Effects of a Targeted Face-Processing Intervention On Visual Attention to Naturalistic Social Scenes.” Julie also collaborated as presenting author of a poster demonstrating the “Impact of a Support Group for Siblings of Children with ASD On the Quality of Sibling Relationships” which was a collaboration with investigators at UC Santa Barbara and University of Connecticut.

Jennifer Foss-Feig MS, a current psychology postgraduate fellow at the CSC, was a co-author on a poster presented by colleagues at Vanderbilt University entitled “Evidence of Inaccurate and Inefficient Visual Speech Perception in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Allison Jack PhD, now a post-doctoral fellow at the CSC, represented her former graduate work at the University of Virginia with a poster presentation of “Temporo-Cerebellar Interactions Predict Mentalizing Ability in Youth with Autism: Fmri and DTI Evidence.” Kevin Pelphrey also was senior author on a study in collaboration with investigators at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Together, Kevin and his co-authors presented on their ongoing efforts “Investigating Functional Connectivity in a Large Sample of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.”

Clinical faculty were also involved as collaborators as evidenced by the work of Michael Powers PsyD, Assistant Clinical Professor, with others at the Center for Children with Special Needs in their poster presentation “Assessment and Intervention for Disorders of Reading Comprehension in Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.”

Submitted by Emily Hau on May 28, 2013