This is an application for an NIH K01 Mentored Research Scientist Development Award: "Brain Systems Supporting Learning and Memory in Children with Autism". The overall goal of this research is to understand the neural basis of learning in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) using both functional and structural brain imaging. ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social and behavioral deficits, but it is often accompanied by remarkable visuo-spatial and mnemonic abilities. A fundamental question addressed here is how individuals with ASD learn, and whether they rely on the same brain systems for learning as typically developing (TD) individuals. This proposal will test the hypothesis that individuals with ASD have enhanced capacity to learn specific facts, but difficulties generalizing to new situations. Mathematics, an area of relative strength for many high-functioning individuals with ASD, requires both these forms of learning, providing an ideal domain to test this hypothesis. The candidate will use a novel training paradigm to investigate learning-related changes in the brain. Children will undergo functional, structural, and diffusion tensor imaging before and after training. Learning of specific instances, as well as generalization to novel situations, will be examined in children with ASD and TD children matched on age and IQ.
The Specific Aims of this project are: (1) To determine how well children with ASD learn mathematical information relative to TD children, (2) To compare learning-related changes in brain response and multivariate representations in children with ASD to TD children and (3) To predict learning based on gray matter volume and white matter connectivity in TD children and children with ASD. The proposed studies will deepen our understanding of the neurobiological basis of learning in children with ASD. Many individuals with ASD have found success in careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions. Better understanding of the brain systems supporting these abilities will improve long- term outcomes for these children and foster academic and professional success in individuals with ASD. The candidate will undergo a rigorous education and training plan to increase expertise in clinical aspects of autism research, neuroanatomy of memory systems, and structural and diffusion tensor imaging. The candidate will be mentored and trained by experts in the fields of clinical psychology, psychiatry, and developmental and cognitive neuroscience. The candidate will also gain critical experience in clinical assessments necessary for successfully working with children with ASD. Formal coursework and attendance at seminars in psychology of memory, neuroanatomy, structural neuroimaging, and clinical psychology will assist in achieving this goal. Completing the proposed research project will enable the candidate to become a successful independent investigator in the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affects up to 1 in 88 children, making it an urgent public health concern. An overlooked aspect of this disorder is that individuals with ASD often have remarkable cognitive strengths in areas like mathematics. The proposed research seeks to uncover the underlying cognitive and brain mechanisms that contribute to spared and enhanced mathematical learning abilities in children with ASD. Understanding and nurturing these strengths is critical for improving quality of life for individuas with the disorder.
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