The Aston Brain Centre at the university is studying 14 to 20 year-olds who have been diagnosed with autism - one of the most common neurodevelopmental conditions - as well as those who are not on the autistic spectrum.
The study aims to understand whether adolescents and young people on the autistic spectrum process information on sights, sounds and social situations in different ways to their peers.
It is hoped the findings will lead to a better understanding of autism, raise public awareness of the condition and, in the long term, improve diagnosis and treatment.
Whilst previous research in this area has used EEG, this study will use the non-invasive brain imaging technique magnetoencephalography, known as MEG. This enables a measurement of the brain to be taken 1,000 times every second, providing a highly accurate picture of activity. There are just eight MEG scanners in the country and the Aston Brain Centre, which opened the first, is a leader in the field.
The project, which is supported by the charity Autism West Midlands, is being led by researcher Robert Seymour under the supervision of Professors Klaus Kessler and Gina Rippon. The charity, the second largest for autism in the UK, has developed an information sheet for research participants and is encouraging its members to take part.
“The study is measuring the very fast brain activity when people are shown pictures and sounds, as well as attempting to determine which areas of the brain process information about other people,” explained Robert. “The aim is to try and determine if, and how differently, the brain responds during sensory and social tasks.”
“To date, six young people on the autistic spectrum have been recruited and we need a further 10. As it’s now the school holidays hopefully more young people will be available to take part. I also need a group of about 15 ‘neurotypical’ young people to undergo the same tests, to act as a comparison group.”
“Many people with autism have trouble processing incoming sensory information,” added Robert. “For instance, they may have sensory hypersensitivity which means that bright lights or crowded situations can be overwhelming. We are trying to understand whether the autistic brain behaves differently to a neurotypical brain and how that might, in the future, help to improve diagnosis and lead to the development of better interventions.”
Overall, the study is trying to understand whether patterns of brain waves, or oscillations, which accompany certain mental operations are different for those individuals diagnosed with autism.
Dr Elisabeth Hurley, Research and Autism Information Officer at Autism West Midlands said: “It has been great for us to have the opportunity to take part in this particular study and to develop detailed information on the subject for potential participants. The feedback we have received on the information sheet has been very positive and this is encouraging many to consider taking part.”
Anyone interested in taking part must have been clinically diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum and aged between 14 and 20. Volunteers will spend up to three hours completing a number of tests and tasks over one or, if preferred, two visits to the brain centre on the university’s Aston campus.
Participants will spend about an hour in the MEG scanner and will also undergo an MRI scan as part of the study.
For more information contact Robert Seymour by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or download fact sheets at www.autismwestmidlands.org.uk/research
Notes to the editor
For more information and photographs of the research project contact: Susi Turner, communications, on 0121 204 4978 or email email@example.com
For more on Autism West Midlands go to www.autismwestmidlands.org.uk or call 0121 450 7582.