The Autism Research Centre (ARC) has seven major reseach programmes
The ARC pioneered psychological research into autism spectrum conditions, developing experimental methods to study difficulties in empathy, strengths in systemizing, and attention to detail. We are now also studying sensory issues in autism. Methods used in this program include computerized testing, gaze-tracking, galvanic skin response (GSR), observational coding, cognitive experiments, questionnaires, and psychophysics.
The ARC was the first to develop early screening methods to detect autism at 18 months of age, and test these at a population level, and has gone on to develop related instruments for screening of autism and Asperger Syndrome in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. These instruments not only serve to help in screening but also in phenotyping, so that underlying biological differences can be linked to their possible functions.
The ARC has developed new educational software for teaching emotion recognition from age 4-adulthood (the Mindreading DVD), and a new children's animation for teaching this skill to preschool age children on the autistic spectrum (The Transporters DVD). Both of these have been carefully evaluated to measure their benefits in comparison to matched control groups.
We are also evaluating other interventions that promote empathy by harnessing the strengths in systemizing, such as Lego Therapy.
The ARC has undertaken a unique longitudinal study of the role of foetal testosterone (FT) in child development by studying children whose mothers had amniocentesis during pregnancy. We are now studying if FT plays a role in the risk of developing autism or Asperger Syndrome itself. We are also looking at medical syndromes where FT is abormally high or low, and looking at the sex steroid hormones in blood or saliva samples in people with a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum. Peptide hormones such as oxytocin are also being investigated.
Autism and Asperger Syndrome are strongly heritable conditions. Whereas most genetics research in this field has used the method of linkage studies, the ARC has pursued association studies of both candidate genes and using genome-wide scans. Whereas most genetics research has focused on classic autism, the ARC has focused on Asperger Syndrome. Our behavioral genetic studies have found an association between strong systemizing (e.g., in fields like mathematics) and number of autistic traits, so we are also pursuing genetic association studies of mathematical ability. Genetic associations are followed up through expression studies.
A wealth of research now establishes that autism spectrum conditions involve altered brain development and functioning. We are studying this using a range of methods including MRI (both structural and functional), ERP, DTI, TMS, developmental neurobiology, and neuropathology.
Synaesthesia is characterised by anomalous sensory perception: A stimulus in one sensory modality triggers an automatic, consistent response in either another modality (e.g. sound triggers the perception of colour) or a different aspect of the same modality (e.g. reading black text triggers colour). Family studies show evidence of a strong genetic predisposition. We published the first test of genuineness of synaesthesia, the first functional brain scans of synaesthesia, and the first genome-wide molecular genetic study of synaesthesia. Our ongoing work focuses on exploring the genetics of synaesthesia and potential connections between synaesthesia and autism.