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Advances in Health and Medicine

Studying Autism's Origins & Causes


Children with autism often have problems with metaphors and make-believe. “I don’t play with things that aren’t real,” one autistic child told Pitt neuroscientist Nancy Minshew.

As Minshew knows, autistic children have no problem with basics of mental function—they can see, hear, and remember facts, and many have average or even above-average IQs. For one study, Minshew gave 56 autistic children a series of neuropsychological tests, then compared their performance with that of non-autistic peers. Children with autism performed well on basic functional tests but less so on complicated ones, corroborating Minshew’s belief that autism stems from disordered information processing and underdeveloped neural systems.

Minshew directs Pitt’s Center for Excellence in Autism Research, made up of scientists from Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University, and Duquesne University who conduct research on the cognitive, neurological, and genetic bases of autism. When Minshew first started studying autism, psychologists believed it originated from only one region of the brain, but Minshew was convinced the disorder, which encompasses many symptoms, likewise had to stem from many regions.

Along with Pitt professor Beatriz Luna, Minshew also conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study that offered the first visual evidence that the neural wiring of people with autism is incomplete. In people with normal neurological functioning, certain parts of the brain exhibited more pronounced neural activity while performing high-level functioning tasks compared to autistic people performing the same tasks.

As part of a consortium of scientists from all over the world called the Autism Genome Project, Pitt researchers contributed to the largest genome scan ever completed in the history of autism research. Pitt’s Bernie Devlin noted the project “represents a new beginning in autism research and provides an invaluable resource to researchers worldwide. We hope that access to the tools and information developed through this project will help researchers unravel the causes of autism.”

Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health has launched a multi-year study to help identify environmental and other factors that may put children at risk for developing autism. By studying parents of both autistic and non-autistic children, the study hopes to determine if there have been substantial differences in environmental and other exposures.

The Pittsburgh Early Autism Study studies infants with autistic older siblings to look for infant behaviors that may predict later diagnosis of autism. Pitt professors Jana Iverson and Mark Strauss hope the study will benefit local families while contributing to the current body of knowledge on autism.