On Jan. 23-24, 25 researchers from around the world came together in Los Angeles for the Cure Autism Now Neuroimaging Summit Meeting. The Cure Autism Now-sponsored science summit meeting was held to provide a forum to brainstorm about how imaging technology
can be used to uncover the underlying biology of autism - in as directed, timely and cost-efficient a manner as possible. The summit, held during two days at UCLA, was a result of a generous donation from Christopher and Jill Escher.
The explosion of digital imaging technologies has made characterization of brain structure one of the best ways to discover subtypes (called "endophenotypes") to classify patients. For instance, recent structural imaging data have told us that the brains of autistic individuals tend to be larger than those of typically developing controls. Functional imaging studies have found that brain regions are also not always activating in the same sequence and pattern as in control individuals. All of this information is helpful to uncover the biological problems that are at the root of autistic behavior. However, obtaining statistically significant imaging data that can reveal these often-subtle variations requires large numbers of patients and images. Yet, imaging studies are extremely expensive, making collection of large numbers of subjects an expensive and time-consuming proposition.
With this in mind, the goals of the 2006 CAN summit meeting were to provoke discussion in the neuroimaging field about how the power of imaging can be used to achieve a better understanding of the affected biological systems in autism, and how the field can work collaboratively to make this happen, fast.
In the world of science, the sharing and collaborating of data is often not the norm. Ideas are guarded in order to protect ones work until after publication. Sharon Begley from the Wall Street Journal reported in January that scientists are now realizing the need to better share their data. When scientists don't "keep discoveries under wraps until publication, they can build on each other's work sooner," Begley wrote. Cure Autism Now is intent on facilitating and accelerating this process.
The summit meeting was chaired by Dr. John Mazziotta, member of Cure Autism Now's Scientific Advisory Board and chairman of Neurology and director of the Brain Mapping Center at UCLA. Dr. Mazziotta, a renowned imager recently featured in a Time magazine story about building an atlas of brain structure, led the meeting participants in two days of discussions that centered on the best ways to minimize the technical, sociological and political impediments to data sharing in autism research.
"We're learning a lot about the sociology of collaboration," commented Joe Piven, M.D., University of North Carolina. "Bringing together autism imaging researchers in this summit is really a way to begin the process of a much larger collaboration."
During the event, meeting participants were assigned to participate in a breakout session to brainstorm about a particular neuroimaging topic. One group was assigned the topic of "alternatives to sharing." However, that group reported back that they didn't like their assignment, because they all felt it necessary to come up with a way to share their data - so they worked off that premise instead!
"When we all relax around the idea of collaboration and [data] sharing, the highest quality work can done so much more quickly and efficiently," said summit participant Eric Courchesne, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego.
Said Science Director Sophia Colamarino, Ph.D., "The intention of all of our summit meetings is to create a venue for the top scientific minds to spend 48 hours focused solely on problem solving in an area relevant to autism. We need more collective brainstorming and free-exchange of ideas."
A report of the meeting proceedings will be prepared and distributed to all parties with an interest in neuroimaging in autism, including the National Institutes of Health. "I feel that the meeting may be a turning point in our commitment to collaboration," said Elizabeth Aylward, Ph.D. "Hopefully, this will allow us to make some real sense of the neuroimaging data we have so far and to guide our future work to a more productive end."
Cure Autism Now would like to thank all participants for their hard work, Dr. Mazziotta for volunteering his time and experience, and the Eschers, who attended the meeting, for their extremely generous support of the meeting.