Neuroimaging helps reveal brain-body links in autism research

Researcher uses state-of-the-art techniques to assess the brain’s ability to turn sensory information into a motor response

April 26, 2016 Mike McNulty

Stefanie Bodison ’92, MA ’93, OTD ’10 tries to understand the relationships between sensory information and a child’s neurological capacity for effectively using that sensory “input” for “output” movements and behaviors.

She is the latest in a long line of USC experts, stretching back more than 50 years to A. Jean Ayres ’45, MA ’54, in that line of investigation.

But unlike a previous generation, not only is Bodison armed with state-of-the-art neuroimaging technologies that provide measurable views of the brain and body at work, she also has grant funding to help her realize her mission.

A research assistant professor at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, Bodison is using various brain imaging techniques including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the structural and functional connectivity of sensorimotor integration — the term describing the brain’s ability to transform sensory information into a motor response.

She has been examining both typically developing children as well as those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). April is National Autism Awareness Month, a nationwide effort to promote autism awareness, inclusion and support, including innovative research approaches such as those of Bodison.

Because sensorimotor integration is a complex process dependent upon one’s ability to copy or imitate the movements of others, the latest phase of Bodison’s project uses fMRI to examine the neural processes occurring during both hand gesture imitations and simple motor response tasks.

While positioned within the fMRI scanner, ten participants — 6-to-8-year-old, right-handed boys, six of whom have a diagnosis of ASD and four of whom are typically developing — were asked to imitate complex, meaningless hand gestures displayed on-screen and also to make either a simple “thumbs-up” sign or “number-one” sign with their hands in response to directional arrow cues displayed on-screen.

Pilot study

The fMRI images from this small sample suggest that, for children with ASD, a simple motor task requires the same extensive degree of motor planning as does the imitation of a complex, meaningless gesture. This suggests that the sensorimotor integration pathways in the autistic brain may contribute to the difficulties demonstrated by children with autism when learning new tasks requiring imitation of others.

This pilot study also demonstrates a new paradigm for the capability of fMRI to measure the neural substrates of sensorimotor integration in the brain.

“Our research team has shown that we can successfully acquire MRI scans in 6-to-9-year-old children with autism,” Bodison said, “which is significant because most of the current MRI research in autism is happening with individuals who are 12 years and older.”

Bodison is supported by a KL2 Mentoring Research Career Development Award, the National Institute of Health’s grant program designed to jump-start the research careers of junior scientists.

As part of the KL2 program, Bodison’s designated mentors include Elizabeth Sowell, professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; Terence Sanger, provost associate professor of biomedical engineering, neurology and biokinesiology; Florence Clark, associate dean, chair and Mrs. T.H. Chan Professor of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the USC Chan Division; and Stewart Mostofsky, director of the Center for Neurodevelopmental Medicine and Research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.