Joseph Piven is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, launched in 2012 to integrate research across disciplines, from neurobiology and genetics to psychology and cognitive neuroscience; all with a focus on better understanding the pathogenesis of neurodevelopmental disorders.
In his current position as Thomas E Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Psychology, and Director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina, USA, Piven investigates the pathogenesis of autism, including neural mechanisms, genetic basis and neuropsychological and behavioural phenotypes. As part of Brain Awareness Week 2014, we asked Piven for his thoughts on the most exciting recent developments in autism research and what he thinks future efforts should be focused on.
What do you think are the current key areas of focus in autism research?
An important area of research over the last few years, in neurodevelopmental disorders and autism in particular, has been the focus on early development. Recent developments include molecular genetics studies that have revealed the timing of expression of ‘autism susceptibility genes’ during the mid-foetal period.
Behavioural and neuroimaging studies have begun to demonstrate that autism unfolds during the first few years of life, following a period of relatively typical development. This behavioural unfolding is accompanied by concomitant changes in brain metrics, observed through imaging, electroencephalography (EEG) and event-related potentials (ERP), which are likely to provide insights into brain mechanisms underlying the onset of autistic behaviour as well as specific biomarkers for early detection.
How have technological advances, such as in imaging, contributed to our understanding of autism?
We published a paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Am J Psychiatry, 2012, Jun, 169(6):589-600) showing that diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) changes were evident as early as six months of age in infants that went on to be classified as autistic at 24 months. However these differences were not seen at 12 months and by 24 months were essentially the reverse of the six month findings. These data suggest that brain findings must be looked at in a developmental context and that very early brain changes may eventually lead to early detection of individuals more likely to develop the disorder. At this time most of the tools we have EEG/ERP, DTI, functional connectivity MRI and structural MRI are very relevant to the elucidation of these phenomena.
Together these studies hold promise for research which takes an evidence based approach to early intervention and detection that may eventually have an important impact on the outcomes in this severe neurodevelopmental disorder.
What do you think are the most important questions that need to be addressed to further our understanding of autism pathogenesis?
A major question is whether we can detect those who are most likely to develop autism before the symptoms appear. This will maximise our likely success with pre-symptomatic interventions. Regarding pathogenesis, understanding pre-symptomatic brain changes will provide important insights into the mechanisms that lead up to the appearance of symptoms and provide rational approaches to intervention.
More about the Editor(s)
Joseph Piven is Thomas E Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Psychology, and Director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina, USA. Piven’s career began with a medical degree from the University of Maryland, USA, after which he practiced in general, and child and adolescent psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, USA. He went on to pursue his interest in psychiatry in both clinical and research settings, completing a John Merck postdoctoral research fellowship in psychiatric genetics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and School of Public Health, USA, and subsequently joining the Faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa, USA. He currently directs a National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded, multicentre Autism Center of Excellence (ACE), to examine early brain and behaviour development in infants at high familial risk for autism. Other NIH research projects include studies of brain and behaviour development in children with Fragile X Syndrome, as well as examining late life manifestations and issues in elderly individuals with autism.