Sunday, November 22, 2009

Focus on UAB neuroscience

Originally published in the UAB Kaleidoscope on April 28, 2008:

On Wednesday, April 23, the UAB School of Public Health presented the Glenwood Endowed Lecture Series, a joint effort between UAB and Glenwood to heighten awareness of the social concerns faced by people who have autism and also to shed light on recent research efforts being made to understand autism. In addition to the keynote speaker’s presentation on brain-based research of autism, workshops were presented by Birmingham-area clinicians. Glenwood, the Autism and Behavioral Health Center of Alabama, touches the lives of 4,500 children, teens, adults, and families affected by mental health disorders annually.

“The aim of the Glenwood Endowed Lecture is to foster a growing sense of unity among the public, service providers, and researchers around the societal impacts of behavioral health disorders such as autism,” said Dottie Mitchell, Director of Communications and Marketing at Glenwood. “We have received an enthusiastic response to this year’s Glenwood Endowed Lecture keynote speaker, Dr. Nancy Minshew. Response has poured in from educators, researchers, parents, advocates, and individuals who have loved ones affected by autism and others from across Alabama.”

Indeed, these efforts have resulted in a much larger knowledge base, as participation in the workshops has increased almost 5 fold in only three years!

“Our first lecture took place in 2005, and there were about 40 people registered; today, we have approximately 185 people registered,” said Mitchell.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. People who have autism are affected to varying degrees, thus the inclusive terminology “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD) has been coined. There are three main forms of ASD including autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. In many instances, people who have autism avoid eye contact, cannot perceive other’s feelings, and tend to display repetitive behaviors. An important social consideration is to educate the public about this disorder in an effort to help these individuals integrate into society.

“It is important to educate parents, teachers, and others about autism,” said Nancy Minshew, M.D., Director of the NIH Autism Center of Excellence, and professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “These are children who are never invited to birthday parties or called on the telephone. Others need to be taught that teasing and bullying are not acceptable.”

It is just this theme that permeated the workshops. Each was tailored to address the specific needs of people who have autism in successive stages of life. Additionally, the event included updates on scientific advancements and research in autism.

“The advent of functional MRI has helped to make tremendous advances in understanding autism,” said Minshew. “In the past, we could only determine that there was an increase in the brain size of young children who have autism because we were limited by the level of resolution afforded by the imaging technology at that time. Now, we have been able to determine that autism is actually a problem of higher-order neural circuitry; their higher-order circuitry is underdeveloped, but their simpler processing and abilities are intact.”

One UAB student believes that knowledge of the basic science underlying a disorder combined with the social considerations that evolve out of the disorder is important for medical researchers.

“I believe it is very important for a basic science researcher to understand not only the underpinnings of the biological component that causes autism but also the societal impact of the disorder,” said Chris Chapleau, a UAB graduate student. “How are these kids going to be in 5 to 10 years? What impact does this have on a family? I believe that understanding these things makes a more well-rounded researcher who is better able to address the questions and provide answers for various aspects of the disorder.”

Opportunities exist for UAB students to learn more about autism and become involved in raising awareness of the disorder by volunteering at Glenwood.

“There are several ways to get involved at Glenwood,” said Mitchell. “Students can help with one of Glenwood’s fundraisers; assist with the Annual Holiday Pecan Sale; or get a group together and participate in a project on Glenwood’s campus.”

For more information regarding volunteer opportunities, contact Rebecca Rhodes Sibley at 205-795-3267 or

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