WVU researcher to conduct neuroimaging studies on people with autism

Stories | WVU Today | West Virginia University

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in every
68 children born in the United States has a form of autism. Children with
autism spectrum disorder typically pay less attention to faces and other social
stimuli, preferring to fixate on objects. Shuo Wang,
an assistant professor of chemical and
biomedical engineering at West Virginia
University, is hoping to find out what role a portion of the brain may play
in this behavior.

Wang will conduct electrophysiology studies on abnormal
signaling in the amygdala, the brain’s alarm circuit for fear and a critical
brain structure for social behavior. His work is being funded by a three-year,
$200,000 grant from The Dana Foundation, the first ever received by WVU.

“The amygdala is thought to play a major role in what people
determine is salient — what they notice and pay attention to — as reflected in
their eye movements, learning and behavior,” Wang said. “Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging in people with ASD have
shown that abnormal activities in the amygdala is correlated with abnormalities
in the way they attend to faces. This correlation might be due to problems with
the neurons in the amygdala or with the neurons’ connections to the visual or
prefrontal cortex.”

Since ASD is associated with an increased risk of epilepsy,
Wang and his research team plan to study patients who require surgery to treat
the seizure disorder. Electrodes placed inside the brain will be used to record
the activities of individual neurons, which will then be correlated with
autistic traits. Forty patients are expected to be part of the study.

“Electrical recordings will investigate the neuronal basis
for two behavioral deficits in autism: a bottom-up and a top-down attentional
deficit, both of which differ from findings in healthy volunteers,” Wang said. “On
the one hand, the bottom-up deficit shows that when viewing natural scenes,
people with ASD …

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