Keynote 4 (part 1): Altered senses and excited brains: investigating the neural basis of autism at the UK Brain Bank for Autism Research

In 1943 Leo Kanner first described several of the key characteristics that we still use to diagnose autism today. Research into the neural basis of autism can use these characteristics as clues to identify which brain regions are implicated based on known relationships between brain structure and function. A combination of approaches is most likely to be successful.

At the UK brain bank for autism research, based in Oxford University, we are conducting research into the neural architecture of basic sensory processing as well as higher cognitive functions. We are studying the cellular organisation of specialised brain regions and combining this with multi-modal brain scanning technology (DTI, MEG, MRS) to build a picture of the altered structure-function relationships in the autism brain. Our studies indicate that the microanatomy of primary sensory areas is changed in autism and that altered cortical cytoarchitecture may provide a signal for in vivo detection to aid diagnosis. The changed anatomy also relates to increased cortical excitation, associated with enhanced cognitive ability in some high-functioning autistic individuals. The UK brain bank for autism research is the first international centre in the ‘BrainNet’ network outside the USA. Together with the four centres in the US, it provides an essential resource for current and future neurobiological and molecular autism research, including the development of potential new biomarkers and neuroimaging technology.

Steven Chance, PhD (Oxon), Associate Professor in Clinical Neurosciences, University of Oxford

After studying for an undergraduate degree in Human Sciences at UCL in London Dr Chance undertook his doctoral research in psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Prof Tim Crow and Prof Margaret Esiri. He was then awarded a research fellowship in Oxford and has since conducted several research projects on the neurobiology and functional anatomy of autism, schizophrenia and dementia. He is now Associate Professor in Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford where he is also co-director of the UK Autism Brain Bank and convenor of the Oxford Autism Research seminar series. He has been one of the pioneers in the application of post-mortem brain imaging and in the assessment of columnar organization of the cerebral cortex in neuropsychiatric conditions.