Skip to main content

Spectrum: Autism Research News

Wanted: Researchers interested in damaged brain regions

by  /  14 November 2010

This article is more than five years old. Autism research — and science in general — is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

Areas of interest: The Western Pennsylvania Patient Registry has collected brain scans from stroke victims who have damage to specific areas of their brain.

Areas of interest: The Western Pennsylvania Patient Registry has collected brain scans from stroke victims who have damage to specific areas of their brain.

A Pittsburgh group has created a comprehensive database of brain scans and other medical and demographic data from nearly 800 individuals whose brains have been injured by strokes. The researchers showcased the collection, called the Western Pennsylvania Patient Registry, at a poster session yesterday at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego.

The registry could prove to be an invaluable resource to researchers interested in specific parts of the brain, including those implicated in autism.

Autism researchers, for example, might be interested in the temporal parietal junction, which is active when you think about others’ beliefs.

“It might be interesting to ask, do those patients end up having behavioral problems that are reminiscent of what we see in autism, or that might help shed light on what that particular brain region does?” notes lead investigator Julie Fiez, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh.

Participants in the registry all have localized brain damage in an area that, because of blood clots, did not receive enough oxygen and nutrients. Each entry in the registry includes details of the participants’ care — such as X-ray computed tomography brain scans and magnetic resonance scans — as well as information on their vision, hearing and language ability. The participants range in age from 18 to 92 years, but most are over 50 because strokes become more common with age.

Funded by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, the registry is open to any interested researcher.

“All of the individuals want to be involved in research studies,” says Denise Balason, the registry’s director. “So we’re essentially a matchmaking organization between researchers and the individuals.”

So far, only ten researchers have used the registry to conduct studies, Balason says, but she is hoping to advertise it to many more.

In the 1990s, Fiez worked on a more famous collection of individuals with brain damage at the University of Iowa. That registry has attracted a lot of attention among neuroscientists because it holds a few participants with extremely rare lesions — including S.M., whose amygdala lesions became the basis for some of Ralph Adolphs’ research.

Fiez says that, eventually, it might be possible to merge data from both collections. Researchers who live far from Pittsburgh could also create online tests — to tap memory function, for example — that the patients could take at their local clinic. “We would love to work with anyone who would be interested in trying something like that,” she says.

For more reports from the 2010 Society for Neuroscience meeting, please click here.