Cornell Professor Takes New Approach to Autism Research in Quest to Answer Questions that Go Back to His Childhood

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His research is totally personal – because his older brother has autism and because he has always been intrigued by order and regularity.

Cornell University Assistant Professor of Human Development Matthew Belmonte is using a grant from the National Science Foundation funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to expand his research into autism through a suite of science-fiction-themed video games.  Belmonte developed the games with computer sciences collaborators at Cornell to help find order within the wide range of ways autism manifests in young people.

Belmonte designed the user-friendly video games with embedded tasks that test users – children with autism or Asperger syndrome ages 10 to 15, along with their unaffected siblings – across multiple domains.  Much of the current research on autism isolates and tests a single domain.

"Autism has been characterized as a fundamental perceptual abnormality; it's been characterized as a fundamental attentional abnormality; it's been characterized as a failure of theory-of-mind," he says. "We each have our individual pet theories, and we each – me included – have designed experiments within these narrow theoretical apertures to confirm or refute hypotheses that are stated along our single tracks."

Belmonte hopes to find links between social and nonsocial theories and between behavioral and physiological data.

The computer games are also intended to overcome a confounding factor common to autism research – the very high level of anxiety that is a hallmark of autism.  According to Belmonte this makes it difficult for researchers to determine whether what they’ve observed in the lab is due to autism itself or simply heightened anxiety.

By giving the games to subjects on laptops to take home and play at their own pace, this problem is averted. While the subjects grapple with asteroids, pilot spacecrafts, intercept pirates and salvage hidden cargo, the computer logs how rapidly they shift attention and engage or inhibit motor responses; how well they perceive coherent motion; and whether they can intuit the motivations of other characters.

Once the subjects are comfortable with the game on their own, Belmonte uses electroencephalography (EEG) in the lab to measure patterns in neural connectivity as they play.

Earlier research has shown that while autistic children and their unaffected siblings share some physiological traits, including frontal lobes that are slower to activate, the overall patterns of neural connectivity are weaker in autistic children compared with their unaffected siblings. "We're going to be looking at that in much larger numbers now using EEG," Belmonte says.

Belmonte’s research is personal. His older brother has autism, and his niece was recently diagnosed with the disorder. He is optimistic about the prospects for a treatment in the coming decades – but also acutely aware that for many it will not come soon enough.

However, he entered autism research in part to answer a more universal question: how the human mind, with or without autism, tries to find or impose order on the world.

"I was always fascinated by order and regularity," he said; and as a child, he shared that fascination with his brother.

"There was always a certain empathy between me and my brother. It was always clear to me, even before I had words for it, that he and I thought in the same way and saw the same things," he said.

Belmonte’s NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award is for $700,000 over five years. Along with the technical and administrative costs of the research, the ARRA grant funds one full-time research assistant in Belmonte's lab. Several undergraduates are also involved in the project. Learn more >>

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