Penn experts to discuss biology of autism at public lecture

Autism

On Monday, Nov. 12, five faculty members from Penn and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will answer questions about autism at a free event at The Franklin Institute.

Autism spectrum disorder, which appears to be more common than previously believed, remains frustratingly mysterious to doctors, researchers, and parents of children who are affected by the developmental condition.

On Monday, Nov. 12, from 6 to 8 p.m., five faculty members from Penn and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) will offer a measure of clarity about the disorder to members of the public. At a free event at The Franklin Institute, scholars will update the audience on cutting-edge autism research as part of the latest Penn Genome Frontiers Institute (PGFI) Community Lecture.

After an introduction from PGFI directors Jim Eberwine and Junhyong Kim, Penn Medicine’s Maja Bucan and Gerard Schellenberg, and Penn Nursing’s Ellen Giarelli will give brief talks on the state of research on autism spectrum disorders. Afterwards, audience members can participate in a Q&A session with the speakers, as well as experts Edward Brodkin, a psychiatry professor at Penn, and Judith Miller, a clinical psychologist at CHOP. No science background is needed to benefit from the event.

Bucan, a professor of genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine, plans to provide the audience with an introduction to what autism is and what methods scientists are using to study the condition.

“The disorder is more complex than we originally thought,” she says. “There are no shortcuts.”

Despite the challenges that research on autism presents, collaborations between researchers at Penn and CHOP are making headway by approaching the disorder from many different angles, including the study of genetics, neuroscience, nursing, psychiatry, and clinical psychology.

“We are studying the same cohort of patients, but are applying different methods and asking very different questions,” says Bucan. “The most exciting aspect is when we see some type of convergence in our work.”  

Autism Spectrum

Penn and CHOP are making headway by approaching the disorder from many different angles, including the study of genetics, neuroscience, nursing, psychiatry, and clinical psychology.

One of the convergences Bucan and her colleagues have witnessed is an understanding that autism is a multi-faceted disorder, striking different children and different families in diverse ways. Scientists have also come to understand that the suite of impairments to social and communication skills that characterizes autism results from abnormalities in multiple genes, not just one.

Such findings, Bucan says, suggest that treatments may not be “one-size-fits-all,” but need to be tailored to address the particular needs of individual patients. At the PGFI event, Bucan anticipates an “extremely lively” discussion to follow the presentations.

“I know people will have a lot of questions, likely related to healthcare and new diagnostic criteria,” she says. “That’s why it’s really important that we have colleagues there who will bring different types of expertise to the table.”

To register for the PGFI Community Lecture, visit the Penn Genome Frontiers Institute website.

Originally published on November 8, 2012