Unique Training Program Improves Autism Research UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute receives $1.5 million to train young scientists

In what is anticipated to be one of the more innovative projects of its kind in the nation, researchers at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute are beginning a new program designed to improve autism research by bringing together a variety of scientific disciplines to cross-train behavioral and biological research scientists in the complexities of autism research.

Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute has launched a five-year program that exposes new, postdoctoral scientists to a wide range of expertise and research in neurodevelopmental disorders. While the institute has always taken a broad approach to the analysis and treatment of autism – combining everything from biology and human behavior to neurochemistry and immunology – officials have long wanted to expand that work.

“What’s really exciting about this project is that we will be training and creating a new type of scientist for autism research,” said Sally J. Rogers, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the UC Davis School of Medicine and the program’s director.

“Knowing a textbook description of the disorder, having laboratory expertise, or having clinical experiences working with children with autism — none of these is enough to significantly move the science forward. This training program gives us opportunities to pool our expertise and create a new wave of talented experts for autism research in an area of study might be best termed ‘clinical neurodevelopmental neuroscience.'”

Rogers said the new program allows young scientists with backgrounds
in either behavioral or biological science to develop a specialized
knowledge in particular areas of the disorder, while also being comfortable
and knowledgeable in other aspects of autism such as genetics, epidemiology, human development, animal behavior and neuroanatomy.

The new program pairs faculty members from different disciplines with
postdoctoral students during the course of a two-year training period. The
trainees will develop an expertise in relevant areas of neuroscience such as
magnetic resonance imaging and histological studies of the autistic brain,
while at the same time also gaining an understanding about the behavioral
side of autism, which is crucial for designing studies and conducting autism
research in a sensitive manner.

UC Davis experts point out that studying autism also opens the way for
understanding a much wider area of human development and developmental
disabilities. Because autism touches most aspects of growth and learning,
when the behaviors involved in autism are studied, researchers also discover
a great deal about communication skills, social abilities, motor development
and cognitive capacities — all of which can be applied to research in other
childhood disorders, as well into studies regarding typical child
development.

New research into language and movement disorders, fragile X, Down and
Williams syndromes, has been enhanced by the progress in autism studies.
Creating broad, interdisciplinary training for the study and treatment
of autism could have benefits for a number of neurodevelopmental disorders,
as well as improve knowledge about more typical human development.

Researchers at the M.I.N.D. Institute say the great advantage of an
interdisciplinary team approach lies in its ability to address a complex
disorder like autism at many levels simultaneously. They say finding a cause
or a cure demands a variety of vantage points, from the molecular to the
behavioral. With the new training program in place, the next generation of
autism researchers is expected to move much farther and faster by being able to communicate with each other through the core concepts and language of several major scientific disciplines.

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