IUPUC professor studying how to detect autism

An IUPUC psychology professor is researching how autism spectrum disorder can be detected earlier.

Mark Jaime, IUPUC assistant professor of psychology, hopes his research can lead to detection early enough to allow more time for treatment and to lessen the disorder’s effect on individuals.

By studying the brain connectivity in social areas of the brain, Jaime said he hopes to discover early neurocognitive signs of the disorder.

“There’s got to be some earlier signs that we just haven’t found yet,” he said.

Working with researchers from Indiana University and the University of Tennessee, another goal of the research is to create a noninvasive test that could be given during routine well-child visits with a pediatrician, he said.

Jaime is working with Chris Harshaw, a research scientist at Indiana University-Bloomington, who is researching connections between social behaviors, the brain and body temperature.

The two hope to receive a grant to research those connections among autistic children.

“By testing some cutting-edge hypotheses and techniques, we’ll be doing some truly exciting work,” Harshaw said. “I think it has the potential to lead to new approaches to the treatment and diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.”

The two researchers want to study how body temperature increases during social interactions and how it may effect those with autism spectrum disorder.

Parents of children with autism have shared experiences about their children’s autism symptoms becoming less severe or disappearing when the children have a fever, Jaime said.

A study in 2007 from the Kennedy Krieger Institute found proof that symptoms such as alertness and coherent language increased while self-stimulating behavior decreased in those instances. The research planned by Jaime and Harshaw is intended to determine if these occurrences are coincidental or based on a scientific premise.

Some common symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include:

Issues with social skills, such as avoiding eye contact or not sharing interests with others.

Difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication skills, such as giving unrelated answers to questions or not understanding sarcasm or teasing.

Displaying unusual behaviors, such as lining up objects and becoming agitated by minor changes.

“It is essentially a neurological disorder that mainly impacts social functioning,” Jaime said. “Autism is a considered a spectrum disorder because it affects every child in a different way.”

While some children with the disorder might be high functioning and have above-average intelligence, others may be more severely impaired, Jaime said.

Researchers have learned signs of autism spectrum disorder begin during early childhood development — before the age of 3 — and usually last throughout the person’s life. Studies have shown that nearly 80 to 90 percent of parents of children with the disorder noticed problems by the time the child was 2 years old.

Jaime recently published a study measuring brain connectivity in adolescents with high-functioning autism during joint attention in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Joint attention is a person’s ability to socially share points of view with other people and to coordinate visual attention. To measure brain connectivity, Jaime used a noninvasive, painless electroencephalogram, or EEG for short.

“It is all noninvasive,” Jaime said. “It is completely painless and looks like a swimming cap that has sensors that can detect brain connectivity at the scalp.”

While hooked up to the EEG, Jaime exposed adolescents to stimuli by playing videos of a model in the center of the screen with a dot that moved from corner to corner. The model will shift to look at the dot. This was to elicit information on whether brain connectivity and joint attention was affected.

The study showed that during joint attention the brains of children with autism were under-connected. As joint attention is critical in the development of the social brain, the study showed that brain connectivity could possibly be applicable in early detection of autism spectrum disorder.

“If under-connected or weak, then children won’t have the resources to function in a social context,” Jaime said.

This test doesn’t require children to do anything except watch the video so it might be a means to diagnose children before they know how to speak.

Jaime began studying autism spectrum disorder in 2008, when he became involved in early cognitive markers of autism during a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Miami after earning his doctorate in 2007.

He became interested in autism as an undergraduate, working as a behavior therapist in his second year of college, he said.

While working with children with autism then, he noticed that many continued to have problems after therapy. Jaime said he decided to study the brain’s role in the disorder and began studying cognitive development.

Jaime is also directing the Early Sensory Experiences Lab at IUPUC, where he is studying children’s understanding of their own experiences and if they create memories of them. He has the children wear a small camera that records them walking or jumping down a hallway. The child later watches two videos — one they made and one by another person — and are asked to identify which video is theirs.

This is an ongoing study, and Jaime admits he is actively looking for kids to participate.

“As a scientist, I think that science moves very slowly and moves in small, incremental steps,” Jaime said. “(Our work) contributes to a very large effort with scientists all over the world. A lot more research needs to be done because the brain is the most complex organ in the universe. We are moving forward, but we are moving forward very slowly.”

Autism spectrum disorder

The developmental disability can lead to social, behavioral and communication challenges.

It has unknown causes, and there is no medical test for diagnosis.

The disorder is variable; some people are high functioning and need little assistance, while others need a lot of help.

Signs of autism emerge during early childhood.

The disorder is about four-and-a-half times more common in boys than in girls.

It has been identified in about 1 in 68 children.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

How to participate

If you are interested in helping Mark Jaime with his ongoing study on children’s understanding of their first-person experiences, you can contact him at 812-348-7236 or by e-mail at mjaime@iupuc.edu.

The only requirement is that the child is between the ages of 2 and 8.

Mark Jaime

Education: Bachelor of Arts degree from Florida International University, 2001; Ph.D. in psychology, Florida International University, 2007; postdoctoral, University of Miami, Florida, 2011; postdoctoral, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada, 2013

Professional: Assistant Professor of Psychology, IUPUC, since 2013; runs the Early Sensory Experiences Lab at IUPUC; work has been published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Consciousness and Cognition, the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology and more scientific journals.

Personal: Wife, Charmaine Jaime; daughter, 1-year-old Scarlett Jaime.

Author photo
Kaitlyn Evener is an editorial assistant for The Republic. She can be reached at kevener@therepublic.com or 812-379-5645.