Scientists are very good at focusing intensely on the problems in front of them, but sometimes not as good at relating their results to those of others in order to construct a big picture. Understanding the many factors and interactions behind autism's causation demands that we communicate not only within but also between neuroscience's many subdisciplines.
Fostering this communication was the aim of CAN's April 2002 targeted research workshop, "Pinpointing Autism: Neurochemical Targets and Research Directions in Developmental Neurobiology," in which neuroscientists working in diverse areas within and outside the traditional bounds of autism research met to trade ideas and to brainstorm about common themes.
Among the results that emerged from this meeting is the conviction that the social and communicative problems that are the most evident on the surface may not necessarily be closest to autism's root causes. Scientists at the workshop addressed the need for studies of broader autistic phenotypes, including oft-reported characteristics such as high levels of arousal and anxiety, and sensory hypersensitivity. These simpler traits point to fundamental abnormalities in the strucuring of neural networks that may underlie the maldevelopment of more complex capabilities such as language and social behaviour, and which point to candidate genes and neurochemical processes that can eventually be targets of drug interventions to treat and to prevent autism.
The dividends of this very lively workshop continue to accrue: a detailed report of the ideas discussed at the meeting was published this past March in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, and the October meeting of the Society for Neuroscience will host a symposium which focuses on these developments and aims to recruit even more neuroscientists to autism research.
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