Understanding the Brain Basis of Impaired Imitation Learning in Autism
Nebel, Mary Beth
Hugo W. Moser Research at Kennedy Krieger, Inc.
Meixner Translational Postdoctoral Fellowship
In a developmental disorder such as autism (ASD), brain-based learning mechanisms vital to the acquisition of motor skills may contribute to impaired development of social and communicative abilities. One problem that likely relates to both motor and social/communicative skill acquisition in ASD is difficulty imitating the actions of others. Ample evidence indicates the presence of ASD-associated deficits in imitation and several behavioral therapies for ASD target imitation impairments; however, there has been limited systematic study of the neural underpinnings of ASD-associated impairments in imitation-based learning. Findings from this research lab point to a potential source of imitation deficits in ASD: a bias in the way that the brain weighs different types of sensory information. Compared to typically developing (TD) children, children with ASD rely more on proprioceptive and less on visual input when learning to adapt their movements. This sensory bias, which is a robust predictor of social deficits in ASD, may put these children at a disadvantage in situations where skill learning is primarily based on visual imitation of others’ actions. During this training, the fellow aims to test whether this sensory bias explains imitation deficits in ASD. The fellow will use innovative robotic methods to quantify how visual and proprioceptive feedback differentially influence imitation learning in children with ASD compared to TD children and will explore whether these ASD-associated deficits in imitation are related to specific patterns of brain connectivity. The findings from the imitation learning paradigm and their association with autism severity and brain connectivity will provide a foundation for developing novel behavioral therapies, specifically those that target motor and social/communicative skill development through imitation. This project builds on the fellow’s research on sensory information processing) with the theme of her post-doctoral training (motor control and functional imaging) and translates them to the clinical arena of autism. Mary Beth’s expertise in neuroimaging and sensorimotor function will be augmented by deeper technical training in robotic control and statistical methods and by exposure to clinical research. Training will be further enhanced with coursework, weekly local seminars and international research conferences.