Highlighted speakers at first IMFAR conference challenge researchers to raise the bar on autism research

November 07, 2001

(SAN DIEGO, CALIF.)- As a part of the inaugural International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) conference, four prominent autism scientists will identify the current level of understanding in the areas of genetics, neuroscience, the incidences (or epidemiological trends) and diagnosis of autism and present a look at where the fields are headed.

IMFAR will hold its first conference on Nov. 9 and 10 to promote communication and facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists researching the disorder.

"We have brought together some of the pre-eminent researchers who understand the challenge that autism presents," said David G. Amaral, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at UC Davis School of Medicine and research director at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, one of the sponsors of the IMFAR conference. "These speakers will challenge their peers to go beyond that foundation and to further expand our current level of understanding of this disorder."

Is autism inherited?

Anthony Bailey, M.D., is an MRC Clinical Scientist in The Centre for Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry at The Institute of Psychiatry and an Honorary Consultant in Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at The Maudsley Hospital in London, England. Bailey will summarize research into the genetics of autism that has pinpointed some areas for further exploration.

While a number of chromosomal regions have been identified as possible locations for disease vulnerability genes, several recent studies have pointed to one region - 7q - as particularly likely to be involved. In this region, some researchers have claimed that variants of genes expressed in the human thalamus or cortex may be associated with autism susceptibility.

Currently other genes in this region involved in brain development are also being actively studied. Bailey added that while some people have a genetic susceptibility to develop autism, either chance or environmental factors seem to determine whether or not they will develop autism.

How are autistic brains different?

Joseph Piven, M.D. is a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is also director of the Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center. His current federally funded research focuses on understanding the pathogenesis of autism through genetics and neuroimaging. His presentation will review how technology for imaging the structure of the brain has begun to reveal subtle abnormalities.

Structural imaging has revealed that the brains in autism are enlarged and that there appears to be an age effect in that the enlargement may be more prominent at very early ages. These findings have implications for understanding brain development in autism and potentially offer a more biological description of autism at the level of neuroanatomy. New techniques being developed for acquiring and processing imaging data offer potentially important approaches to examining this phenomenon.

Is autism on the rise?

One of the more well-known researchers delving into the apparent increase in autism is Eric Fombonne, M.D., who is heading the McGill University Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Montreal Children's Hospital in Montreal, Quebec.

Rates of autism are certainly much higher than they were 30 years ago but researchers are questioning whether that reflects a change in diagnostic criteria, improved identification or a broader recognition of the disorder. Fombonne, who is associate editor of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, will discuss how the definition of autism has evolved since the initial benchmark epidemiological study in 1966 and may be partially responsible for the spike in rates of autism.

Is there a universal definition for autism?

Catherine Lord, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and director of the Autism and Communication Disorder Clinic, is best known for her work in longitudinal studies of children and adults with autism and the development of diagnostic measures used in both practice and research. She will be addressing the diagnosis of autism and, in particular, the defining behaviors of children with autism.

People with autism represent a broad spectrum of impairment, ranging from normal intelligence and good basic language skills to significant intellectual deficits and little or no language. A common diagnostic scheme for assessing the complex social and communication deficits that constitute key features of the disorder has been a critical prerequisite to scientific progress.
The International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) is the first-ever scientific research conference specifically devoted to the topic of autism. The conference is underwritten collaboratively by the Cure Autism Now Foundation, the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute and the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR). Its mission is to provide a unique opportunity for researchers, advocates, health care professionals, service providers and others affected by autism to discuss and promote new research into the condition. http://www.imfar.org In order to reach the IMFAR virtual newsroom, please log onto http://www.newswise.com/vpr/mtg2001.ucm.html

Editor's Note: A media briefing on the state of the science will be held with these same scientists at noon on Saturday, Nov. 10.

Martha J. Alcott, UC Davis Health System,
916-734-9027, voice; 916-762-9846, pager; martha.alcott@ucdmc.ucdavis.edu

University of California - Davis Health System

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