CARE Research Project: Autism

Title of Research: Autism

Name of Investigator(s): Stewart H. Mostofsky, M.D.

Dr. Mostofsky is a research scientist at KKI, and an Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Brief Description of Summary Research, including Goals and Objectives:
Motor abnormalities have been well documented in individuals with autism and, in fact, date back to Leo Kanner’s original descriptions of the disorder. Increased insight into the brain mechanisms underlying autism can be gained from careful consideration of these motor signs. By using tests of motor function for which the neurologic basis is well mapped out, it is possible to gain an understanding of the neural circuits impaired in autism; motor signs can also serve as markers for deficits in parallel brain systems important for control of the social and communication skill impairments that characterize autism. Among the most consistently observed motor abnormalities in children with autism is difficulty with imitation and performance of skilled motor tasks and gestures (e.g. riding a tricycle, waving good-bye), which often results in a diagnosis of “dyspraxia.” In the context of the developmental disorder of autism, these deficits could be secondary to a fundamental problem with acquiring motor skills, i.e. motor skill learning. Deficiencies in motor skill learning could also result in development of a limited repertoire of movements and behaviors and might thereby help to explain observations of motor stereotypies and other repetitive behaviors in autism. Despite this, there have been few studies of motor learning in autism. The goals of this proposal are to determine the common factors underlying motor learning deficits in autism and to investigate the brain abnormalities associated with these deficits using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A complimentary long-term goal is to examine the association of impaired motor skill learning with socialization and communication deficits that characterize autism. Development of social and communicative gestures (e.g., waving, blowing a kiss) involves learning complex patterns of movements, and the proposed study will not only provide substantial insight into the neurologic basis of motor deficits in autism, it might also provide a basis for understanding the neurologic underpinnings of impaired social/communicative development. Knowledge about the nature of learning deficits in children with autism could then help guide behavioral, educational and other therapeutic interventions.