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3-D imaging research takes aim at autism

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2007 confirmed what had become obvious to many health care professionals, specialists, and family support agencies: More children than ever before were being diagnosed with autism. Investigators called its prevalence an “urgent public health concern,” estimating that two to six in every 1,000 children were affected.

Autism is a brain disorder characterized by a complex variety of afflictions and behaviors collectively called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Though the degree of severity varies widely, affected children exhibit difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and obsessive behaviors.

To address pressing questions about brain development and function in autism, a dozen University of Missouri researchers from a variety of disciplines formed The Autism Neuroscience Research Group (ANRG). One of the collaborators, Ye Duan, is an assistant computer science professor in the College of Engineering.

In close collaboration with another of ANRG’s team members, Judith Miles, who is the William and Nancy Thompson Endowed Chair in Child Health at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, the young researcher’s background in 3-D imaging has earned him research funding to study facial features and cranium size in a subset of children suffering from ASD. The facial imaging system will make identical precision measurements of the faces of children with autism.

Additionally, Duan received a prestigious Young Investigator Award from the NARSAD Foundation—the world’s leading charity dedicated to mental health research—that will fund 3-D imaging of various segments of the brain in ASD children, beginning with the corpus callosum in the mid-brain. Duan uses computational power in the form of algorithms—a set of rules, or calculations—to render brain segments in three dimensions based on points assigned to the images.

“I didn’t know much about autism up until a few years ago, but this research is a perfect application for my work in 3-D imaging,” said Duan, whose additional three-dimensional image-based modeling research also takes aim at emergency management and mission planning.

Duan’s facial and brain imaging work will focus on two ASD subgroups hypothetically identified by Miles’ research. She has observed and distinguished children with a tendency toward more physical and brain abnormalities and smaller craniums as having complex autism. Only about twenty percent of affected children are thought to fit this subset. The other eighty percent are classified as having essential autism. These children are most likely to be male and may have family members affected by similar disorders.

Miles has also identified physical similarities in midline facial structure and increased cranium size among those in the essential group and has speculated that the traits may be related to brain abnormalities, specifically within mid-brain structures such as the corpus callosum.

“Current diagnostic criteria are blunt,” said Miles. “Looking at sub-groups that seem biologically distinct to see if brain parts differ could allow us to easily differentiate between them.”

“We hope to make a cranial correlation with the brain in children with autism,” said Duan. “Quantitative analysis could be helpful for pre-screening.”

Increased diagnostic precision is just one of the hoped-for outcomes from the research projects. It is also anticipated that Duan’s research will reveal genetic clues that can direct additional research.

“Our research group is exploiting a tremendous overlap of knowledge from many disciplines. Ye’s work will be a pivotal part of ANRG’s grand scheme,” said Miles. To solve these problems, it takes an entire community of specialists working together.”

“I feel lucky to have met Dr. Miles and I am fortunate to have this really distinguished faculty—clinicians, physicians, geneticists, psychologists—to work with,” said Duan. “Their research is the best in the state and maybe the country.”

“This is very personal stuff,” added Duan. “You feel good if you can make a difference.”



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