The View from the Autism Summit

Our lab and the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Missouri recently hosted an Autism Summit. This collaborative meeting included several of the leading scientists in the field of autism research, specifically those studying the etiology of this neurodevelopmental disorder.  Overall, the goals of the meeting were to discuss highly recent study results and to establish a collaborative mindset regarding an animal model of autism.  Several of the visiting scientists gave talks on their recent work and the implications of their data for future directions in the field.
Perhaps unexpectedly, several major themes emerged throughout the course of the Summit. Amidst detailed methodological information, major issues and obstacles in autism research were discussed, providing a refreshing and even compelling “big picture” perspective of the field.
The importance of a unified approach to etiological research was brought forth.  For instance, the difficulty with heterogeneity in autism, both etiologically and phenotypically, was common to almost every talk. Dr. Margaret Bauman, a pioneer in the field of autism research, expressed that researchers need to practice the understanding that there is not just one cause for autism and there will never be just one cure.  Additionally, Dr. Eric London of the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities discussed the importance of addressing etiology in the appropriate context. For a disorder that most likely arises from prenatal genetic and/or environmental events, focusing on postnatal symptoms, such as the core symptoms of autism, might add too much complexity to the etiology problem. Lastly, collaborators Dr. Jeanette Holden of Queen’s University and Dr. Suzanne Lewis of the University of British Columbia argued for the value of identifying subtypes of autism. Dividing autism into separate phenotypes might aid in genetic and thus etiological approaches.
New technologies and approaches, both in intervention and research were discussed.  Dr. Baumann discussed the importance of communication devices for non-verbal individuals. She expressed that the iPad and similar devices are changing the field due to their ease of use and socially-acceptable appearance. In terms of investigative approaches, Dr. Dan Campbell of USC discussed the necessity of studying non-protein coding genetic elements, which are often overlooked in the midst of known protein-coding genes.  Additionally, Dr. Laura Herzing of Northwestern University addressed the importance of studying gender-specific deficits in animal models of autism. Further, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman of Harvard School of Medicine supported examining the potential therapeutic possibilities of the fever phenomenon, in which many autistic children display less severe symptoms when they have a fever.
Lastly, many speakers discussed considerably unaddressed areas in the field, such as the population of adults with autism. Problems arising from the lack of research in this area involve the paucity of services for well-being and employment for adults with autism.  Dr. Bauman expressed the need for policy-makers to consider functional ability versus straight IQ when allocating services.  Additionally, Dr. Gregory Barnes of Vanderbilt addressed the importance of studying autism with co-morbid epilepsy, a relatively unstudied area that could provide useful information regarding both etiology and clinical care.
             Looking back, the Summit not only established collaborative relationships, but also provided a helpful evaluation of the field as a whole.  As different researchers work further in their respective highly-specialized areas, the importance of common understandings on a grand scheme becomes greater.  Etiological research must be driven by the inherent heterogeneity of autism; novel experimental and clinical approaches must be utilized to further advance the field; and under-studied areas in the field must be given utmost attention. Needless to say, after the Autism Summit, the field of autism research is in much clearer view.

Citizen Science

I just read this post about a recent scientific discovery in the field of biochemistry.  The actual discovery involving the molecular folding mechanisms of retroviral proteases (involved in diseases, such as AIDS) is remarkable in an of itself. However, who solved this long-standing molecular mystery is perhaps even more remarkable: online gamers.

The title of the article, “Gamers solve molecular puzzle that baffled scientists,” made me laugh at first, but my amusement quickly turned to awe as I read on. Gamers of all different backgrounds have been competing on an online game called Foldit for several years now, and recently researchers at the University of Washington configured the game to assess the retroviral protease problem. It was solved in less than ten days.

The author of the article notes that this discovery proved a “giant leap for citizen science.” This concept harnesses the collective and diverse problem solving abilities of people for the good of scientific investigation. Appreciating the agility of the human mind over “sheer computer power,” scientists can enlist the general public in some of their greatest endeavors.  What an incredible picture – science doesn’t have to be a daunting field filled with lab coat-bearing, PhD-toting academics. It can be accessible to someone in their PJs playing a computer game.

Thus, the challenge of spreading scientific knowledge to the general public is extended. Not only should the lay-community be informed of scientific research, they should be invited to participate in it. With causes as great as curing AIDS at hand, this inclusive, even democratic, approach to science could be extremely powerful. Few obstacles would hold back the world’s leading scientists if they gathered the resources of the collective public mind. After all, what’s a baffled scientist got to lose?