The 3rd Annual International Meeting of Autism Research (IMFAR) occurred on May 7th and 8th and was co-sponsored by Cure Autism Now, the National Alliance for Autism Research, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the UC Davis MIND Institute. Researchers from across the world convened at the Sacramento, California Regency Hyatt Hotel to share and discuss recent developments in the field of autism research. In addition, many scientists used the intermissions between presentations, as well as lunches and dinners, to meet with colleagues and discuss collaborative efforts to address autism.
"This IMFAR meeting was by far the best yet," said Cure Autism Now founder Portia Iversen. "It was very heartening to see that what was just an idea five years ago, has lead to such a successful meeting. It is hard to believe that until IMFAR, no scientific annual meeting in the field of autism existed."
The presentations and posters presented at this meeting covered the gamut of autism research. Scientists reported applying some of the most sophisticated technologies available to this research; from powerful brain imaging technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to high-tech genetic methods of DNA chip analysis.
"I saw geneticists, neuroimaging people, environmental toxicologists, psychiatrists and developmental biologists sitting in the same lectures, which was great," Iversen continued. "The new findings provide an overarching model that nearly everyone in the field can attach their theories and findings to - so they can join in the new phase of discovery rather than being threatened by it. This in turn creates a more upbeat, collaborative atmosphere in the field, than we've ever had in the past."
For more information on the IMFAR meeting click here.
Dr. Joseph Piven, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, reported a longitudinal MRI study of 18-35 month olds with autism. Since his initial report of increased brain volume in individuals with autism, there has been some controversy over his findings because he found that head circumference at birth was normal but the brain volume at assessment is elevated with comparison to individuals not affected by autism.
In this study, infants with autism were monitored, for time one at 18-35 and then from 42-59 months for time two. Between the two time points, Piven and colleagues have identified increases in the total tissue volume but no significant differences in the size of the cerebellum. By identifying the specific regions with significantly altered brain volume differences, it is hoped that a greater understanding of the development of autism symptoms in children may be gained.
Other scientists have focused their efforts on identifying the protein complexes and individual proteins involved in the formation of neurochemical synapses. Dr. Kimberly McAllister, a researcher at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, focuses her research on the period after birth during which brain cells form connections and at which time in humans, autism often develops.
She observes the formation of synapses in mice by tagging proteins with a fluorescent marker and monitoring how they travel in individual neurons while they are forming connections. Her discoveries show which proteins are important in this process and interestingly, many of them are being studied as candidate genes, such as neuroligin, thought to be involved in autism.
"The neuroligin and neurexin interaction may be critical for this process and possibly for autism," said Dr. McAllister about her findings. Together with the NMDA receptor, these proteins are part of the synapse forming complex.
While some scientists focus their research on brain imaging or mouse models, others take a significantly less high tech approach but one that is just as powerful. Dr. John Constantino, of Washington University of St. Louis carried out a study of autism traits in twins and their parents. Dr. Constantino has designed a questionnaire which monitors behavior indicative of problems in social responsiveness, social awareness and social interaction. The importance of this research is that many scientists believe that the individual genes for autism are found in the population at large and are common. It is the combination of these genes and their possible interaction with environmental factors that result in autism.
Dr. Constantino found that problems with social interaction are present generally in the population at large and they are moderately to highly heritable (genetic). In addition, it appears that the genes influencing social responsiveness are the same for boys and girls although girls seem to be more resistant to the genetic influences that give rise to deficits in social responsiveness and interaction.
With over 350 abstracts and 300 participants, Sally Rogers, the Chairperson of IMFAR, said that IMFAR has become "a stable, expected event. It says much for the current productive state of autism research, that we have developed a yearly opportunity for autism researchers from all over the world to come together and share their latest scientific progress, find opportunities to form new collaborations and talk together about this very complex disorder."
Sally Rogers concluded her introductory letter by stating the intended purpose and philosophy of the meeting. 'We will come to understand this disorder based on our collective knowledge, not on any one person's individual knowledge. Adding to that collective knowledge base is our purpose in coming together this year." It is this attitude of sharing which will move this field forward and help identify treatments and preventions for autism.