While much research has been devoted to the social and communication issues that define autism spectrum disorders (ASD), much less is known about motor deficits that affect the majority of, if not all, individuals with ASD. These include not only repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping and rocking, but also problems with both fine and gross motor skills such as walking, feeding, and lifting and holding objects.
Now a five-year, $2.3 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health will fund research at the University of Kansas that will define motor deficits in ASD from childhood through adulthood. The goal of this work is to better understand the motor problems experienced by individuals with ASD and to determine their bases in the brain. These studies have the long-term potential to teach us about the causes of both motor and related behavioral issues in ASD and to develop more objective, biologically based targets for treatment development and validation.
“Appreciation for the significance of motor problems has grown recently because these issues are common, are perhaps the earliest emerging features of ASD in infants and disrupt multiple aspects of learning and development,” said Matthew Mosconi, who will direct the project and is associate professor of clinical child psychology and associate scientist with the Life Span Institute at KU.
“We are also now able to measure these issues precisely and objectively, and there has been considerable research detailing the brain processes that help support motor behaviors, so this is a promising direction for identifying brain mechanisms associated with ASD,” said Mosconi, who became the director of the Life Span Institute’s Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training in June after a nationwide search.
Specifically, the study will focus on deficits in the ability to control different types of motor behaviors, such as grasping objects and making eye movements.
“As we learn or perform any movement, we initially plan that movement but then rapidly adjust or modify the plan based on what we see and feel,” Mosconi said. “These adjustments help us fine-tune our behavior and change our ability to estimate and plan our behavior next time around.”
The project will conduct studies of everyday motor behaviors while simultaneously collecting real-time data on brain function in both individuals with and without autism (192 participants between the ages of 10 and 25: 96 with ASD and 96 healthy controls).
“We are also targeting discrete, precisely measurable motor behaviors to probe two different brain systems, each previously implicated in studies of brain anatomy in ASD,” Mosconi said. “Further, we are not only studying the function of different parts of the brain during motor activities but also how these different parts of the brain communicate with one another to perform complex motor actions.”
Mosconi says the study has the potential to guide professionals working with individuals with autism who have motor difficulties. The research will also will help highlight brain mechanisms of sensorimotor issues in autism that may help determine new targets for biomedical treatments.
“ASD is a disorder or set of disorders affecting brain development. We still don’t know what is happening in the brain to cause the developmental issues of ASD,” he said. “By defining motor deficits in ASD, we will be able to start mapping some of these brain processes and determine how they relate to other social, communication and cognitive symptoms that build on basic motor skills.”
The project will be supported by several KU facilities on the KU Lawrence campus and in collaboration with researchers at KU Medical Center, including faculty at the Hoglund Brain Imaging Center and the Center for Child Health and Development (CCHD). The CCHD, the Kansas Center for Autism Research & Training and the Frontiers: Heartland Institute for Clinical and Translational Research also will support these studies through their comprehensive patient registries and other resources. The Life Span Institute and Clinical Child Psychology Program will provide additional administrative, clinical and research support.