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Society for Neuroscience Conference Highlights Autism Research

By Walter Lerchner, PhD and CAN Staff
September 13, 2007

In the late fall, the Society for Neuroscience held its annual conference for 2006 in Atlanta, Georgia. This prestigious conference represents one of the yearly highpoints for all subjects related to the brain, spanning everything from basic biology research to research addressing all disorders of the nervous system.

With the area spread out on 32 acres to accommodate the nearly 30,000 researchers in attendance, the distances between lecture halls measuring in 10's of minutes, and the rows of poster presentations spanning over miles, it may have seemed that the main focus of this year's conference was upon physical fitness, but fortunately those looking for new information on autism were rewarded as well. The increased interest in autism that was already apparent last year expanded even further this year. This included nearly 130 scientific presentations related to autism and, perhaps even more impressively, autism as a feature of many of the conference special events.

In a new feature called "Meet the Experts" that kicked off the conference on Saturday morning, CAN grantee and autism specialist Martha Herbert, MD, PhD was one of the five experts chosen to give informal discussions over breakfast with young researchers. Dr. Herbert enthusiastically described her research on autism and explained how her clinical practice impacts her motivation to help individuals affected by autism.

On the opening evening, Huda Y. Zoghbi, MD, a recipient of the CAN Genius award and scholar of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute from Baylor College of Medicine addressed conference attendees in the annual Presidential Lecture series. Her groundbreaking work on the genetics of Rett syndrome, a disorder that in some cases has behavioral similarities to autism spectrum disorders, opened up intriguing possibilities in the search for genes involved in autism. During her lecture attended by several hundred people, Dr. Zoghbi recounted how her discovery in 1999 of the gene involved in Rett Syndrome is currently leading to the design of clinical trials based on the knowledge of the biological pathways affected by disruption of the gene, MECP2. To conclude her talk, Dr. Zoghbi tantalized the audience by reporting preliminary new data that may further link disruptions in the MECP2 gene to "classic" autism. These new studies are leading Dr. Zoghbi and colleagues to continue their detailed analyses of the role of MECP2 in autism and associated disorders.

2006 CAN grantee Kim McAllister, PhD was honored with the Society of Neuroscience Young Investigator Award. Each year this distinction recognizes one young researcher who has had tremendous impact on the future of their research field. Dr. McAllister, who is studying the proteins involved in nerve cell signaling, became the first woman in 10 years to receive the award. Most recently Dr. McAllister has been focusing on the role of immune proteins in brain development and cell signaling. CAN Science Director Sophia Colamarino, PhD was particularly enthused by the award: "It is so assuring to know that we have the brightest young researchers now bringing their expertise to the field of autism." In a demonstration that great science can also go hand in hand with a successful family life, Dr. McAllister's colleague, Philip Washbourne, PhD, had to receive the award on her behalf as she was at home expecting the birth of her second child. In prepared remarks read aloud on her behalf, Dr. McAllister made a special point of thanking CAN for support of her research.

One of the highlights of the meeting for anyone interested in autism was the Social Issues Roundtable, which this year addressed autism for the first time. The roundtable focused on a number of themes important to the state of the autism research field and to the consequences of autism on society as a whole. The event brought together researchers from across the neuroscience field with the local community, which was invited to ask questions in the discussion following the individual presentations. Among the five panel presenters were CAN grantee Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, MD, AGRE steering committee member and CAN Science Advisory Board member Dan Geschwind, MD, PhD and CAN co-founder Portia Iversen.

During the course of the five day event, 17 CAN grantees presented their CAN-funded projects. Some of these included: Richard Deth, PhD, whose lab presented three posters that focused on metabolic pathways that may be impacted by autism. Research by Janel Le Belle, PhD, indicated that dysfunctions in anti-oxidant proteins may contribute to changes in early brain cell development. Research presented by the laboratory of Laura Schreibman, PhD, showed that children with autism process speech sounds differently than typically developing children, potentially illuminating what underlies the communication difficulties faced by individuals with autism. A study by the lab of Sally Rogers, PhD, focused on uncovering early signs of autism. Their careful experiments showed that by one year of age, children with autism may already be focusing on different areas of the face during social interactions than children without autism.

All in all it was an exciting event that capped a great year for autism research. For the many conference attendees who wished to learn more about autism, CAN's science team staffed a booth that answered questions, provided science materials and recent papers, and distributed information on the AGRE program to all who stopped by during the five day event. With such a large increase in interest in autism, we can only look forward to even more progress in science targeted to understanding, diagnosing and treating persons affected by this disorder.