I am the Director of the Center for Autism Research (CAR), whose mission it is to understand the causes of the autism spectrum disorders (ASD) so that we can develop more effective treatments. I direct a multifaceted research program that is complementary to and overlapping with other CAR faculty. This research program spans genes to brains to behavior, from infants to adults. Each component has been carefully designed and built over the last five years so as to support CAR's core mission.
In collaboration with the Center for Applied Genomics at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, CAR collects DNA samples in almost all of our studies, so as to define the genetic architecture that puts one at risk for ASD. A deeper understanding of the genetics of autism may be the most efficient pathway to improved treatments. CAR also has a number of studies aimed at understanding environmental contributors to ASD risk. Much of my work involves using MRI to understand brain mechanisms that cause ASD. We also use MRI to create biomarkers that predict who has ASD, who will develop ASD, and who will respond well to different interventions. We collaborate closely with the Section of Biomedical Image Analysis in the Department of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania on these biomarker studies.
The research group which I oversee is very interested in basic mechanisms that support attention and learning and the biology of reinforcement based learning. Much of the phenomenology of ASD can be described in terms of specific skill deficits, which in aggregate conspire to make it difficult to develop and maintain social relationships. These include a range of interrelated skills such as the ability to perceive social cues, remembering and identifying people, and understanding and using nonverbal communicative cues such as gestures, facial expressions, and emotional prosody to impart social information. We study both implicit and explicit mechanisms of learning of these skills. The most efficacious treatments of ASD rely on principles of behavioral analysis, especially operant techniques, where desired behaviors are reinforced using a variety of social and biological rewards (e.g., social praise or sweets). In fact, the positive effects of increased motivation on learning are fundamental to all behavioral treatments of ASD. Given the enormous amount of clinical effort devoted to reward based behavioral interventions, there is shockingly little research on the mechanisms of reward processes in ASD, including studies on why reinforcement based interventions work well for some individuals but not others. We are finding that the brain's reinforcement (reward) systems, are perturbed in ASD. This might explain why many with ASD don't make as much progress with behavioral interventions. We have created a reinforcement-based intervention, disguised as a set of computer games, to train social skills in ASD. We are now are testing whether this approach will work best when combined with the naturally occurring hormone, oxytocin. Many recent studies suggest that oxytocin can boost social motivation and potentiate social learning. We are also studying how problems with anxiety and poor sleep impact learning and have intervention studies planned in both of these areas.
Coutanche MN, Thompson-Schill SL, and Schultz RT. Multi-voxel pattern analysis of fMRI data predicts clinical symptom severity. NeuroImage. 2011. 57(1): 113-123.
Levy SE, Mandell DS, & Schultz RT . Autism. Lancet. 2009. (374 ): 1627-38.
Schultz RT. Developmental deficits in social perception in autism: The role of the amygdala and fusiform face area. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience. 2005. 23: 125-141.
Schultz RT, Gauthier I, Klin A, Fulbright R, Anderson A, Volkmar F, Skudlarski P, Lacadie C, Cohen DJ, Gore JC. Abnormal ventral temporal cortical activity during face discrimination among individuals with autism and Asperger syndrome. Arch Gen Psy. 2000. 57: 331-340.
Schultz RT, Grelotti DJ, Klin A, Kleinman J, Van der Gaag C, Marois R, Skudlarski P. The role of the fusiform face area in social cognition: Implications for the pathobiology of autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B. 2003. 358: 415-427.
Tanaka JW, Wolf JM, Klaiman C, Koenig K, Cockburn J, Herlihy L, Brown C, Stahl S, Kaiser MD, & Schultz RT. Using computerized games to teach face recognition skills to children with autism spectrum disorder: The Let's Face It! program. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2010. 51(8): 944-952.
Wolf JM, Tanaka JW, Klaiman C, Cockburn J, Herlihy L, Brown C, South M, McPartland J, Kaiser MD, Phillips R, & Schultz RT. Specific impairment of face processing abilities in children with autism spectrum disorder using the Let's Face It! Skills Battery. Autism Research. 2008. 1(6): 329-340.