James McPartland, PhD

Associate Professor in the Child Study Center and of Psychology; Associate Director, Developmental Electrophysiology Lab; Director of Undergraduate Studies, Yale Child Study Center; Director, Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic

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Detecting and Treating Autism

As a clinical psychologist who directs the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic, James McPartland, PhD, spends a lot of time with patients with autism. He uses that experience as a neuroscientist to design experiments to understand how the brain works and how development of children with autism differs from typical development.

Dr. McPartland’s research is focused on understanding the way people with autism process social information by using electroencephalography (EEG) to detect electrical activity in the brain. He published the first study to show that people with autism process faces with decreased efficiency and has continued this work to detect autistic development before behavioral symptoms emerge in infants who have a higher risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

One of the challenges in conducting this type of research is to create ways of measuring brain activity in real life social situations. Dr. McPartland has worked with Yale cognitive scientist Adam Naples, PhD, to create realistic avatars that respond to eye contact to show that there is a specific brain marker for eye contact, a new finding. “This is important because autism is heterogeneous but almost everyone has problems with eye contact,” he said. A video game in which participants are rewarded for making eye contact at the appropriate time illustrates his efforts to not just understand brain activity, but also shape behavior.

The Scholar award offered essential support at a critical juncture in Dr. McPartland’s career. “By ensuring research time and resources to invest in a lab, it empowered me to develop a program of research and advanced my goal of bettering the lives of children and families affected by neurodevelopmental disabilities,” he said.

Recently, he received a grant to lead the Autism Biomarkers Consortium for Clinical Trials, a large scale longitudinal multi-site research study to develop a battery of electrophysiological, eye tracking, and behavioral tools to measure social function and communication in people with autism. “I would not be positioned to lead such an ambitious undertaking without the ongoing support of YCCI,” he said.

Like many YCCI Scholars, Dr. McPartland has benefitted from knowledgeable and devoted mentors. His Scholar award was the impetus for establishing a collaboration with Linda Mayes, MD, and Michael Crowley, PhD, to build and maintain the Developmental Electrophysiology Laboratory, a highly productive core resource for the School of Medicine.