One of the things I wanted to do in blogging about IMFAR, was try to provide a bit of a wrap-up of my experience there in Philadelphia this year. Since it was my first time attending an IMFAR, and I really had no idea what to expect ahead of time, I figured it might be useful to jot down some overall notes retrospectively.
First and foremost, IMAR is a scientific meeting. There is no shortage of introduction to what is out there in current autism research. This began with Wednesday’s pre-meeting press conference. It was there, that the press would learn about several selected abstracts (apparently thought to be worthy of media attention): the University of Rochester’s (Dr. Susan Hyman) negative GFCF study results, the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s (Dr. Brian Freedman) debunking of the 80% divorce rate claim, and others such as, landmark genetic studies, infant sleep fMRI as potential early diagnostic tool in the future, and social/educational intervention strategies that demonstrate the importance of peer involvement. Each of the study authors presenting their work to the press, spent about 5-10 minutes giving the highlights and taking a few questions, but in reality, each presentation was barely a thumbnail sketch of what the research was about and perhaps a minute of discussion about potential real world significance of the findings. You can read more about the items that caught my attention in the press conference at Blogging IMFAR: Opening Press Conference and GFCF Diet Trial Results and Blogging IMFAR: Autism And Divorce Debunked, Among Others.
Following the day of the press conference, IMFAR was off and running, with full daily schedules of presentation sessions, and poster sessions running the majority of the day (one floor below where the presentation sessions were taking place). On one hand, I suppose the science presentations could seem fairly frustrating to many. Like the press conference, the oral sessions presentations are given on a fairly tight schedule, and often contain little more than an introduction, a few minutes of methodology discussion, a quick look at statistical results, and time for one or two questions – then it’s on to the next, which might even be something only very loosely related at times.
For a typical parent, I think it’s quite possible they’d find the whole format approaching “tedious-to-learning” much of the time, with only an occasionally very interesting or very well-presented piece of research. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want detract from the likely importance of researchers having an open venue to share ideas with each other, but for me, there are only so many shotgun presentations you can listen to, or posters you can look at in one day.
On the other hand, IMFAR is a place where it seems ridiculously easy to get the big picture quickly, and even talk with expert researchers in the field of autism science if you are so inclined. It’s hard not to catch the what of what’s currently taking place in autism research world, as it’s everywhere – in the program, in the posters, and in the discussions. As an example, if one wanted to learn what’s taking place in autism research that’s using brain imaging, whether looking at language response and differences in infant siblings of autistic children, or looking at the potential impact of some specific intervention on brain funtion, researchers studying just those kinds of things are at IMFAR presenting and discussing their research. From what I saw, one can attend the relevant presentations, and then visit with researchers later on – I saw this occur on several occasions, with researchers like Eric Courchesne (University of California, San Diego). “Accessibile” is word that is probably a pretty good way to sum up my general thoughts on the science at IMFAR. while the format can seem very dry, especially to someone like myself (who didn’t arrive with a specific scientific field of interest that I was dying to scout out), the science and the researchers do seem really accessible.
Which brings me to what I thought was an important impression of IMFAR. The scientists really do seem accessible – willing to spend time for those with quesitons, and willing to provide explanation and lay translation where appropriate. On the first full day at IMFAR, I have to admit that I really didn’t know where to start. How was I ever going to explore all the science, and then distill that down to something digestible in size, yet explanatory of the trends in autism science? I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with Dr. David Mandell. Besides being a local Philadelphia researcher, he was the Scientific Program Chair for IMFAR this year. And I could not be more appreciative of the time he gave to me (and LBRB readers), in sitting down to explain the trends in autism research at IMFAR – and he’s probably one of the best possible people to see and understand those trends, as he read every one of nearly a thousand abstracts accepted at IMFAR this year. If you want the inside scoop on the science at IMFAR, as well as an opportunity to simply get to know the thoughtful Dr. Mandell a little better, it can be found at Blogging IMFAR: Excerpts Of An Interview With David Mandell, ScD.
Speaking of thoughtful autism researchers, while at IMFAR, I literally ran into (interrupting his cell phone conversation while on an escalator) Dr. Roy Richard Grinker, professor of anthropology and human sciences, autism epdemiologist, author of the book “Unstrange Minds”, and wouldn’t you know it, a jazz pianist and marathoner too! Dr. Grinker was gracious enough to sit down with me for coffee, and share a little more about why he was at IMFAR with LBRB readers. You can read the interview at Blogging IMFAR: Meet Roy Richard Grinker.
At this point in my notes, we’ve arrived at midday Friday. And it as midday Friday when I see what I consider the most interesting science. As a recipient of a travel/attendance grant (that partially funded my trip to IMFAR) from the Autism Science Foundation, I was also invited to attend their “Science and Sandwiches” luncheon. It might be tempting to think I was attracted simply for the free food, but the sad truth was, that I had eaten a very late breakfast and wasn’t even hungry at the time of the luncheon. During the “Science and Sandwiches” lunch, each of 6 pre-doctoral students presented an overview of their research plans. These are pre-doctoral students who applied, and in turn, the Autism Science Foundation selected, to fund their research directly. They all seemed fairly interesting and unique, ranging from researching social conversation rules among ASD kids and infant emotions measurement, to very specific mouse model genetics/pharmacological experiments, to epidemiology. Yes, epidemiology. It might seem surprising that a young autism science advocacy org like ASF, or anyone for that matter, would fund epidemiology. I can’t help but think that field is already maturing to some degree in the U.S. I thought to myself, other than potential minority underrepresenation, what kind of breakthroughs in scientific understanding could we really get from epidemiology in the U.S.? I mean, we already know that we’re probably finally very close to what is a pretty stable 1 in 100. What else is there?
That’s when we were introduced to Matthew Maenner. Maenner is a pre-doctoral student of the University of Wisconsin, Madison (working under the mentorship of Dr. Maureen Durkin), who proposed, what to me, looks like a very interesting take on autism epidemiology with his research titled, “Phenotypic Heterogeneity and Early Identification of ASD in the United States”. He asked the luncheon group (of what looked like about 60 attendees), about how many possible combinations of the individual DSM diagnostic criterion can result in an ASD diagnosis. You know, if one looks at all the possible permutations of: “(I) A total of six (or more) items from (A), (B), and (C ), with at least two from (A), and one each from (B) and (C )” and the criteria for Asperger’s and PDD-NOS from the DSM IV-R, how many many combinations are there? It turns out there are 616 (I think I wrote that down correctly). He had a fascinating cloud-graph-type illustration of this (there’s probably a good technical term for this), that looked like a spiral galaxy – the point being that diagnostic criteria steer categorization to a shared core, but at the same time, there are numerous arms extending in several directions. He explained how he intended to look at the CDC’s ADDM data to begin to answer questions about the basis for the landscape of real world diagnoses compared to the actual possibilities described within the diagnostic criteria. Like a fool, I assumed that the ADDM data, like much of published autism epidemiology, tended to be focused on fairly simple prevalence, even dichotomous in nature (Autistic – yes/no, Asperger’s – yes/no, PDD-NOS – yes/no, X percent of all ASD’s = Autistic Disorder, etc.). Also, like a fool, I asked about him about this with something to the effect of, “In assuming the CDC’s ADDM data doesn’t have the resolution to go beyond diagnosis results, and into the individual combinations of criteria that result in those diagnoses, how are you going to even look at answering that question your research is about?”. He politely responds, explaining that, in fact, the CDC’s ADDM data does have this resolution. My assumption is way wrong, and this is an “Aha!” moment for me. We have tons of what is probably pretty good data available from the CDC, and it seems, to me, that no one has looked at it in quite this way before now.
So here’s my take on this ASF-funded doctoral student’s proposed research – he may be digging into something much more descriptive and potentially useful to the biological and educational sciences with respect to autism spectrum disorders, than has been done so previously (that I am aware of). If there’s epidemiology that can quantitatively describe the distribution of characteristics that result in ASD diagnoses, biological, and even educational research may have a leg up on being meaningful. As an example, suppose that this epidemiology determines that a certain percentage of ASD diagnoses include selection of the C – 4. “persistent preoccupation with parts of objects”. With real numbers, biological research may have a starting point to evaluate associations of differences in brain structure or function with respect to this characteristic. With real numbers, perhaps the success of specific educational strategies (that take advantage of this specific knowledge) can be meaningfully evaluated with more individualized approaches. Here’s the bottom line as I see it: Matthew Maenner is taking a solid step towards building understanding of the variation that occurs in autism spectrum disorders. It’s possible, if not likely, that his work could contribute to entirely new and much more individualized directions in other autism research. The days of any notion of singularity in etiologic origin of autism are long gone (in favor of complex combinations of numerous factors). Here’s a researcher who, in my opinion, understands that and will take steps towards building real understanding by looking at that distribution of variation. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if “Matthew Maenner” is a name associated with the more interesting and useful autism epidemiology in the future.
So there you have it. That was my couple of days at IMFAR: an early look at some of the “newsworthy” science, an opportunity to learn much more about current trends in autism research from a hard-working scientist (the IMFAR Scientific Program Chair, Dr. David Mandell), a chance to sit down and chat with a very thoughtful researcher and author (Dr. Roy Richard Grinker), as well as first-hand look at some new research direction in graduate programs. All in all, it was a pretty interesting couple of days.
I’d also like to take just a minute and thank the Autism Science Foundation for partially, yet generously funding my travel (as a parent who blogs) to IMFAR. I had complete freedom to check out and write about whatever I wanted to, and it wouldn’t have been possible without their financial assistance.
(Disclosure: my attendance at IMFAR was funded in part, by a travel grant from the Autism Science Foundation.)