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Nancy Kanwisher and John Gabrieli, project leaders at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, will head an ambitious new project to study the origins of autism and dyslexia. Both scientists are prominent experts in neuroimaging and human brain development.
The grant is from the Ellison Medical Foundation.
Autism and dyslexia are complex brain disorders that first appear in early childhood. Little is known about the causes of either disorder. Both are highly heritable.
It is thought that in both cases the earlier treatments begin, the more effectively a child can learn to compensate. For this reason, it is important to develop methods for early diagnosis. Non-invasive neuroimaging may be a means to this end.
A major emphasis of the new project will be to translate the recent great advances in neuroimaging methods to the field of pediatric neuroimaging.
Brain imaging with young children presents many challenges. Not the least is the inability to lie still for long periods in the scanner. The McGovern investigators will collaborate with neuroimaging experts at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), who will develop scanning coils designed especially for children’s heads.
They will also develop new procedures to shorten scan times and methods to analyze data from brains that are not fully developed.
Kanwisher and Gabrieli 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 family history are at increased risk for autism or dyslexia. They will 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.
In addition, they will examine the effects of therapeutic interventions, in the hope of identifying markers that will guide the development of more effective therapies. And in the longer term, they hope to link their findings to future advances in understanding the genetics of these disorders.
According to Gabrieli, it may be possible to develop genetic tests that will be easier and less expensive than brain scans.
source: Science Centric News online on 2/6/08. www.sciencecentric.com
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