March 06, 2015, BY Matt Hughes

Children with autism perceive the world differently. They sometimes miss the connections between related sights and sounds, or make connections that others don't.

Bucknell University Professor Aaron Mitchel been exploring those differences since 2012 through a grant from the Bucknell Geisinger Research Initiative (BGRI), and presented his findings at the 2014 Psychonomics Conference. Now, thanks to a second grant from the BGRI, he and research partners Brenda Finucane, associate director and clinical investigator at the Geisinger Autism and Developmental Medicine Institute (ADMI), and Geisinger speech-language pathologist Marissa Mitchel will investigate how two  genetic causes of autism spectrum disorder impact children's abilities to integrate visual, auditory and other stimuli. Ultimately, they hope their research will improve intervention and treatment of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders at Geisinger and around the world.

Professor Aaron Mitchel, psychology

"There are training regimens in place to help with multisensory integration, so if you could identify the genetic roots of some of these things then you could have early interventions," Aaron Mitchel said. "One of our goals is for this to be clinically relevant, both for diagnostic purposes as well as for guiding treatment."

A joint venture between Bucknell and the Geisinger Health System, the BGRI facilitates collaboration between Bucknell faculty and students and Geisinger clinicians and research faculty by providing seed grants for projects with the potential to transform health care at the local, regional and national levels. These efforts support the Campaign for Bucknell University's Human Health Initiative, and all are offered with the expectation that researchers will use their findings to pursue outside grants from entities such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Mitchel's project — one of six funded in the third phase of BGRI grants — will examine multisensory integration, or the ability to connect stimuli perceived with different senses. Mitchel studies children's ability to make those connections using illusions.

Imagine, for instance, a flash of lighting and a roar of thunder. If the sound of thunder follows the flash closely enough — within .1 to .2 seconds — you might perceive them as a single event. Otherwise, you will see lightning and then hear thunder. Children with autism often have a much broader temporal binding window, or tolerance for perceiving the thunder and lighting as a single event — often as long as a half-second.

The project will examine how children with two genetic conditions, Klinefelter syndrome and Turner syndrome, perceive such illusions. These syndromes are associated with an increased risk of learning disabilities and developmental disorders, including autism, and so the researchers hypothesize that differences in multisensory integration abilities may contribute to their learning problems.

"Previous research on multisensory integration has studied dyslexia, ADHD, autism — it was focused on behavioral diagnoses," Mitchel said. "We're going to the heart of matter — to the genetic diagnoses — to see if there is commonality."

If they find an association between either condition and challenges to multisensory integration, it could lead to earlier clinical and therapeutic interventions, which are known to improve health outcomes for children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.

The BGRI-funded project being undertaken by two electrical engineers, Bucknell Professor Rich Kozick '86 and Andrew Michael of the ADMI, also aims to diagnose autism earlier, albeit in a much different way.

The researchers are studying methods for capturing the work of brain networks using functional MRI technology. They hope that doing so will eventually lead to a more accurate tool for diagnosing autism spectrum disorder.

The new functional MRI at the Geisinger Autism and Developmental Medicine Institute

"The human brain functions in distributed networks," Michael said."Many different baseline networks are spread across the whole brain, but how we define a network can slightly vary with the method that we use. If the definition of a network is different between methods, the features of a network that we derive will also be different, and hence the features of autism or subclasses of autism we find will also be different."

The project draws upon the deep database of brain-imaging data available through the ADMI, Michael's knowledge of brain imaging and Kozick's expertise in signal processing, which he has previously applied to military and robotics projects.

Professor Rich Kozick '86, electrical engineering

"I am excited for this collaboration because it allows me to learn about a new application and to apply the tools I have to a health related problem," Kozick said. "It's something that can help people.

It will also provide two first-year Bucknell students, Nicholas Bilcheck '18 and David Paymen '18, the opportunity to work on a project that could one day improve outcomes for countless individuals on the autism spectrum.

"It's exciting," Bilcheck said. "I've been working on the math side of the project. It's linear algebra, and I had never taken that course. Even though it's research, it's a teaching opportunity too."

The autism studies are just one of the many facets of health care BGRI grant recipients are aiming to improve through their research:

  • Professor Donna Ebenstein, biomedical engineering, will partner with Geisinger ENTs William Azeredo and Jenna Briddell to analyze the effect of saliva on the degradation rate of absorbable sutures.

  • Professor Sarah Manoogian, mechanical engineering, will partner with orthopedic surgeons Adam Lee and James Widmaier to study the influence of Surgical Drilling Procedures on Thermal Osteonecrosis.

  • Professor Mitchell Chernin, biology, and urologist Heinric Williams will study Mechanisms of Bladder Cancer Growth Inhibition Using Dual HSP70 Inhibitors.

  • And Professor David Rovnyak, chemistry, will partner with Brian Irving of the Geisinger Obesity Institute in using nuclear magnetic resonance to characterize human serum.