According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in every 68 children born in the United States has a form of autism. Children with autism spectrum disorder typically pay less attention to faces and other social stimuli, preferring to fixate on objects. Shuo Wang, an assistant professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at West Virginia University, is hoping to find out what role a portion of the brain may play in this behavior.
Wang will conduct electrophysiology studies on abnormal signaling in the amygdala, the brain’s alarm circuit for fear and a critical brain structure for social behavior. His work is being funded by a three-year, $200,000 grant from The Dana Foundation, the first ever received by WVU.
“The amygdala is thought to play a major role in what people determine is salient — what they notice and pay attention to — as reflected in their eye movements, learning and behavior,” Wang said. “Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging in people with ASD have shown that abnormal activities in the amygdala is correlated with abnormalities in the way they attend to faces. This correlation might be due to problems with the neurons in the amygdala or with the neurons’ connections to the visual or prefrontal cortex.”
Since ASD is associated with an increased risk of epilepsy, Wang and his research team plan to study patients who require surgery to treat the seizure disorder. Electrodes placed inside the brain will be used to record the activities of individual neurons, which will then be correlated with autistic traits. Forty patients are expected to be part of the study.
“Electrical recordings will investigate the neuronal basis for two behavioral deficits in autism: a bottom-up and a top-down attentional deficit, both of which differ from findings in healthy volunteers,” Wang said. “On the one hand, the bottom-up deficit shows that when viewing natural scenes, people with ASD tend to focus on the image’s center regardless of what objects are in the periphery. They also pay less attention to faces and locations indicated by others’ gaze. The top-down deficit shows that contrary to the way healthy volunteers show an efficient search strategy to locate a target object or face, the search strategies by people with ASD are far less efficient, especially when searching for faces.”
Wang believes the electrophysiological recordings are expected to provide a key missing ingredient from fMRI data.
“Benefiting from our complex stimuli and sophisticated computational model, this research will provide the most comprehensive analysis of saliency representation in the amygdala with the highest spatial and temporal resolution to date,” Wang said. “The results generated from this research will shed light on the neuronal mechanisms underlying impaired social attention in autism and provide a key missing link between animal neurophysiology and human fMRI.”
Wang has done extensive research on human neuroscience. Prior to coming to WVU in 2017, he did postdoctoral research at both Cal Tech and Princeton University. This is his first award at WVU.
“Dr. Wang’s research will foster knowledge in this important and unexplored area,” said Cerasela Zoica Dinu, associate chair for biomedical engineering. “It also creates active networks between different entities at WVU, namely the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, WVU Health Sciences Center and the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.
CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, Statler College of Engineering
and Mineral Resources