Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder characterized by deficiencies in social interaction and communication. Individuals with ASD often have difficulty with communication, interpreting social behavior, and empathizing with others, behaviors which are relatively easy for neurotypical individuals.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that autism affects 20 individuals per 1,000. Traits which are typical of autism are generally recognizable by the time a child reaches three years of age. While some children exhibit autistic traits right away, other children may develop normally and then regress.
While there is a lot of speculation about the exact cause of autism, the experimental evidence remains ambiguous. In early stages of research on autism, it was that there was a common genetic, cognitive, and neural cause for the disorder. However, now autism researchers think that there may be many co-occurrent causes. Some research have suggested environmental factors, such as vaccines or prenatal stress may cause autism, but these results have failed to be confirmed by further studies.
Our lab is investigating how autism affects perception, and especially a hypothesis dubbed Intense World Theory. According to this theory, ASD is the result of an individual's super-connected brain. To the autistic individual, the sensory-data received from the world is painfully intense. This theory originates from research on autistic animals, which pointed to an abundance of excitatory connections in the neo-cortex and an over-activation of the amygdala. If this is true, it would help to explain the autistic inclination to shy away from the world, and the intense focus that autistic individuals often exhibit.
The Intense World Theory originated from research that sought to investigate the link between teratogen valproic acid (VPA) and ASD. Recent studies have shown that there is a strong link between prenatal VPA exposure and ASD, and it causes similar neurological deficits in rats - including social deficiencies, repetitive behavior, higher perceptual stimulation, lower sensitivity to pain, and other traits commonly associated with autism in humans. This theory has yet to be verified in humans, even though rats are generally understood to provide a reliable model in the lab.
Our lab aims to investigate the Intense World Theory of autism by conducting a series of behavioral, epidemiological and neuroimaging studies.