Clinical and Neuropsychological Research

Investigators

Dr Nicole Rinehart
Prof. Bruce Tonge
E/Prof John L. Bradshaw

About Clinical and Neuropsychological Research

The overarching aims of our neuropsychology research are (a) to investigate neurobehavioural similarities and differences between children with autism and Asperger's disorder, (b) to correlate neurobehavioural anomalies with possible sites of neurobiological dysfunction, and (c) to identify early neurological markers which may be used to expedite diagnosis.

Research Projects

An examination of motor functioning in autism and Asperger's disorder (AD) using kinematic gait analysis and movement-related potentials

Student:   Ashwini Nayate (Dpsych. Neuro)
Collaborators:   Prof R Iansek, Dr. Jenny McGinley

The objective of this study is to examine motor functioning in young children and adolescents with autism and AD using a kinematic analysis of gait and an EEG analysis of movement-related potentials (MRP). The kinematic analysis of gait utilises a clinical gait stride analyser. The kinematic gait study will provide clinically valid information about the gait and posture of (a) young children with autism (age 3-5 yrs), and (b) older children with high-functioning autism and AD (age 7-12 yrs). This information may be used to enhance 'clinical descriptions' of autism and AD, and also to enhance early diagnosis and accurate differential diagnosis between these disorders. In addition, we are conducting a series of neurophysiological studies so that our kinematic gait measures of motor dysfunction in autism and AD can be linked with possible electrophysiological correlates. We have devised a movement-related potential technique which enables an examination of the integrity of the supplementary-motor-area, which plays a central role in motor preparation. The MRP study is complementary to the kinematic gait study, as it enables us to examine similarities and differences between autism and AD from a neurophysiological, as well as neurobehavioural, perspective.

Psycholinguistic investigations of autism and Asperger's disorder

Students:   Kasia Kiernowski (Dpsych.Clinical) & Samantha Speirs (PhD)
Collaborator: Dr. Greg Yelland

The aim of our most recent investigations is to examine how children with autism and Asperger's disorder process language. We are utilising a number of priming techniques developed by Dr. Greg Yelland (Department of Psychology), for example, semantic and masked identity priming. The question of whether, and how, language development and later functioning is different in children with autism and Asperger's disorder is critical to the issue of whether these disorder groups are indeed separate.

fMRI Investigations of autism and Asperger's disorder

Student:   Mr. Timothy Silk (Masters Biomed.)
Collaborator:   Dr. Ross Cunnington (Howard Florey Institute)

Individuals with high-functioning autism (HFA) and Asperger's disorder (AD) generally have impaired attentional and executive function but good visuo-spatial ability. Individuals who excel mathematics also have very good spatial ability but without attentional or executive dysfunction. In our current study we have examined brain activation during mental rotation in order to examine differences and/or similarities in neural activity underlying visuo-spatial processing and executive functioning in HFA/AD. Fitting neuropsychology findings, the HFA/AD groups showed decreased activation in the anterior cingulate and dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, indicating functional deficits in the network underlying key aspects of executive function, most probably working memory.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation & autism

Collaborator: Dr Paul Fitzgerald (Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre)

We aim to evaluate whether repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) alters motor functioning in children with autism and Asperger's disorder (AD), and thus justify the use of rTMS in a subsequent clinical trial. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a non-invasive means of stimulating nerve cells in superficial areas of the brain, providing a powerful method for the study of motor cortical function. TMS applied to the motor cortex of human subjects has been extensively applied to investigate normal motor cortical physiology and disease states. TMS methods have a significant advantage over other methods of assessment of motor function as they are completely independent of motivation, attention, and other elements of higher cognitive function. Over recent years, the response to rTMS trains in motor and premotor areas has been used as a mechanism to assess normal and abnormal functioning of human motor circuitry. rTMS trains have lasting effects on cortical activity that may have therapeutic benefits in a number of neuropsychiatric disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia. This indicates that rTMS can have prolonged effects on cortical activity, and that these alterations may be directly associated with therapeutic benefits.