14 young scientists are participating in the Harvard Catalyst KL2 Medical Investigator Research Training (MeRIT) program, and will spend the next two years conducting clinical and translational research to learn more about the origins of ASD in children.
Among them will be Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) neuroscientist Lindsay Oberman, PhD, using noninvasive brain stimulation and neuroimaging tools to study the brain in children and adults with autism spectrum disorders.
“The work that Lindsay will be pursuing has the potential to impact the lives of many individuals with these devastating disorders, as well as the lives of their families,” explains Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at BIDMC and Oberman’s Harvard Catalyst mentor. “This MeRIT program support enables junior scientists to advance their research so that they can reach the next level as clinical and translational scientists.”
Oberman uses transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to probe brain plasticity in ASD patients. TMS is a noninvasive technique in which a magnetic field is generated through a flat “paddle” placed against a patient’s scalp. The painless procedure results in the induction of electric currents and enables Oberman to target small areas of the brain to either enhance or reduce activity and measure the effects on subjects’ neural circuitry.
“Plasticity refers to changes in the brain that stem from new experiences, such as studying a new language or any other learning experience,” explains Oberman, who is also an Instructor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. “In patients with ASD, we think that these mechanisms of plasticity are abnormally high or ‘hyperplastic.’
“Our research is demonstrating that in individuals with no evidence of autism, these changes in the brain last about 30 minutes,” she explains. But, she adds, among adults with ASD, the brain changes last much longer, 90 minutes on average.
“This suggests that for ASD patients any new experiences are causing lasting brain changes, thereby leading to the communication and social deficits that often characterize these conditions,” says Oberman.
In addition, hyperplasticity may also explain some savant abilities demonstrated by some ASD patients; in such instances, patients are extremely gifted in one area, such as musical ability, in contrast to their overall developmental limitations. But, adds Oberman, on balance, it appears that hyperplasticity results in more problems than benefits for these individuals.
“If our studies in children are consistent with the data we’ve gathered from our adult research subjects, we may eventually be able to use hyperplasticity as a means of diagnosing autism in young children, before the onset of behavioral symptoms,” explains Oberman.