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Neurobiological Approaches to Autism

Neurobiological Approaches to Autism

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The New York Academy of Sciences

Presented By

Presented by the New York Academy of Sciences


Autism and autism spectrum disorders are the focus of intense scientific interest as the incidence and prevalence of these disorders increase. With the description of the mirror neuron system in higher primates and humans, new insights have emerged into the brain regions and neural systems whose function is affected in these disorders.


Gerald Fischbach
, MD
Simons Foundation

Overview of Autism: Current Status
Fred Volkmar
, MD
Yale University

This presentation will summarize current perspectives on the neurobiology of autism and related disorders within an historical framework. The origins of the diagnostic concept and early evidence suggesting brain involvement in the pathogenesis of autism will be reviewed with an emphasis on the data which, during the 1970s, indicated a strong neurobiological basis of the disorder. With the advent of a onsensual defintiion of autism in 1980 this work accelerated and progress will be discussed within several areas: neurochemistry and pharmacology, structural neuroimaging and EEG, genetics, functional MRI and neuropsychology. The significant advances in our understanding of the brain basis of autism will be emphasized along with implications of these findings for improved diagnosis and treatment.

Mirror Neurons and Autism
Mirella Dapretto
, PhD
University of California, Los Angeles

Mirror neurons, neurons that fire both while executing a goal-directed action and while observing the same action being performed by others, provide a neural mechanism by which others' actions, intentions, and mental states can be readily understood. The hypothesis of mirror neuron dysfunction in autism has recently received considerable attention as it offers a parsimonious account for the social impairments characteristic of autism spectrum disorders. In this talk, I will briefly describe the relevance of mirror neurons to social functioning, discuss the empirical evidence of mirror neuron abnormalities in autism, and highlight avenues for future research in this area.

The Neurobiology of Attention
Michael Goldberg
, MD
Columbia University

Roughly half of patients with autism have attention deficit disorder, and attentional difficulties may be fundamental to the pathophysiology of autism. William James described attention as the selection, by the brain, of one out of what seem several possible objects. Attention can be voluntary as in the decision to read this abstract, or involuntary, as in the sudden attention paid to a flash of lightning. The parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex is thought to be critical in the genesis of attention. In this lecture I will describe how neurons in the monkey parietal lobe describe the monkey's attention, and predict how attention will shift from a voluntary plan to a distractor and back again.

A panel discussion will conclude the event.