Susan Y. Bookheimer, Ph.D.
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AIM disburses $180,000 to UCLA’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience – Semel Institute

In 2015, AIM disbursed $180,000 to UCLA’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, which studies the brain and neuropsychiatric disorders in children and adults using advanced brain imaging, specifically functional and structural MRI. AIM funds have supported several new projects and provided seed money for future federal grants. MRI-based research, directly fueled by AIM, includes studies into understanding the sensory hypersensitivity of children with anxiety and autism to better inform treatment, a pilot program to examine the unique brain chemistry of patients with schizophrenia which may lead to new pharmacological approaches, and a study to measure the effectiveness of cognitive training in methamphetamine abusers. The UCLA Center, dedicated to identifying risks for mental illness and new preventative treatments, also used AIM funds for a study of adolescents at high risk for developing psychosis, to identify early changes in social responsiveness. These results will be submitted to the NIH for a larger grant. Lastly, the AIM grant funded a pilot project to better understand how the brains of those vulnerable to depression respond to cognitive behavioral therapy and how this treatment normalizes the brain’s response.

Dr. Bookheimer wrote: “One of the important research studies that was funded by AIM examined the neural basis of Sensory Over-responsivity in autism. SOR is a difficult and sometimes debilitating feature of ASD. This work- done by Dr. Shula Green, a former post-doc, Dr. Mirella Dapretto and myself, examined how the brains of children with SOR and autism responded to sensory stimulation and how the brains of these children adapt or “habituate” over time. We made an important discovery- the brains in children with autism and ASD react differently to repeated exposure. Most of us rapidly habituate to sensory input, so that even unpleasant sensations do not bother us after a while. This fact is used in exposure therapy for many individuals with anxiety disorders, which can appear very similar to SOR in children with ASD but are in fact different. Our work has shown that traditional therapies will not work inn these children because the habituation process is disrupted; although the brains of children with SOR responded initially the same way as control children and children with autism who did not have SOR, there was a big difference: the sensation areas of the brain did not habituate over time like the others. Instead, the brain continued to respond to sensations as if they were brand new, and aversive. Our findings suggested that treatment for these children must require a fundamentally different, “top-down” approach. Dr. Green sends this first-hand experience of working with one of these children and the impact the work had on this child:

“I worked with an 8 year-old boy who was one of the sweetest and smartest kids I’d ever met. He had ASD but was so smart and functioning so well academically that his school refused to give him any services. However he was quite anxious – so much so that he resisted going to school every morning (i.e. this very even-tempered kid having complete meltdowns) and while he did well in class, he did not have any friends and was very uncomfortable playing with any other kids during P.E. or recess. He also had significant auditory sensory over-responsivity. I have a hunch this is part of what made recess difficult (i.e. the other kids making so much noise). He also had difficulty going places with his family, such as restaurants, theme parks, etc. He adored his family and wanted so badly to spend time with them – I remember him feeling particularly badly because the family had to leave a restaurant during his mother’s birthday dinner due to his auditory sensitivity. I saw him in a community mental health center and he lucked out a bit because I happened to have training in CBT for anxiety in kids with ASD – so we worked on a lot of coping skills to deal with his anxiety and SOR. For example, he had difficulty talking about his emotions but as soon as we started drawing scenarios, he could write out thoughts and feelings in dialogue “bubbles.” We also worked with an occupational therapist on coping strategies for his SOR – a lot of these were similar to coping strategies for anxiety, e.g., recognizing his physical response and finding coping mechanisms such as deep breathing, verbalizing his feelings, taking a break in a quiet space, etc.

Our current research suggests that this is exactly the right way to approach treatment for this kind of kid – first of all, I don’t know that I would have recognized his SOR if I hadn’t known from our research that anxiety and SOR are so highly related. Secondly, our research suggests that top-down coping strategies may be most effective for treating SOR (as opposed to exposure). The kind of treatment this child got is VERY rare and I think our research will lead to better treatment strategies as well as wider awareness of the effectiveness of this type of treatment.”

Thanks to AIM, we now know how to treat this very serious symptom of autism.”