Research on Emergence of Autism Receives Funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has funded new research lead by Daniel Messinger, Professor of Psychology, for the mathematical modeling of autism data with genetic markers. The project, titled “Modeling the Dynamics of Early Communication and Development,” will focus on early infant-parent relationships, which is central to understanding social development.

The modeling of communicative behavior and related genetic markers in infant and mother will increase understanding of pathways to healthy cognitive and socio-emotional development, and shed light on the potential for change in early intervention efforts.‌

‌“The focus is modeling the development of communication to better understand how autism and similar disorders emerge,” said Messinger. “We will do this by objectively measuring behavior with computer software, modeling the development of communication, and relating that communication to common genetic variants in both parent and child.”

Infant-mother interaction will be studied at 2, 4, 6, and 8 months using the Face-to-Face/Still-Face (FFSF) procedure, a method of identifying Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in early childhood which interprets a child’s response to their parent. Facial, head, and arm/hand modeling will be used to conduct objective measurements of the parents’ interactive behaviors, including facial expression, gaze direction, head movement, tickling, and vocalization.
The project, which involves researchers from the University of North Carolina, the University of Pittsburg as well as University of Miami researchers involve Neil Johnson, at the complexity center in Physics, and Eden Martin, in Human Genetics. This interdisciplinary team includes investigators from developmental and quantitative psychology, genetics, affective computing, computer vision, and physics who model dynamic interactive processes at a variety of time scales. Utilizing the expertise of University’s faculty, the creation of this genetically informed modeling of the infant-mother interaction will help describe the diversity of early developmental pathways and the potential deviations from those pathways.

The mission of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is to support research that increases understanding of life processes and lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention. NIGMS-funded researchers seek to answer important scientific questions in fields such as cell biology, biophysics, genetics, developmental biology, pharmacology, physiology, biological chemistry, biomedical technology, bioinformatics, computational biology, selected aspects of the behavioral sciences and specific cross-cutting clinical areas that affect multiple organ systems. To assure the vitality and continued productivity of the research enterprise, NIGMS also provides leadership in training the next generation of scientists as well as in developing and increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce.

August 09, 2013