Faculty Spotlight

 Dr. Inge-Marie Eigsti, PhD

Dr. Eigsti is on the faculty of Psychological Sciences at the University of Connecticut. Trained in clinical psychology and cognitive science, her research addresses a fundamental challenge in research on autism: how to map complex behaviors onto mechanistic processes in the brain. She does this in research on low-level, domain-general cognitive processes, such as working memory and auditory processing, that can be linked to genetic, neurophysiological or neuroanatomical domains, and that seem to have a broad impact on social communication.

 

Dr. Eigsti, with colleagues from UConn, NYU, and the Olin Neuropsychiatric Institute, has just been awarded a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health for a research project: Optimal Outcomes in ASD: Adult Functioning, Predictors, and Mechanisms.

 

Some individuals meet gold-standard clinical criteria for ASD prior to age 5 but end up later in development with no symptoms of ASD, and IQ and adaptive skills in the average range. This study evaluates this “optimal outcome” (OO) in two groups:

(1) those who participated in our OO research study as teens, now young adults, allowing us to evaluate how they navigate the difficult transition into independence and young adulthood; and

(2) those who were diagnosed by us with ASD at age two and re-evaluated at age four, now in their teens,allowing us to identify which of this cohort has achieved optimal outcome, and thus to identify earlypredictors of OO.

Both cohorts are compared to individuals with current ASD or with histories of typical development (TD). We hypothesize that young adults with OO may show very mild delays in some milestones (finishing higher education and obtaining competitive employment), and may show some symptoms of anxiety and ADHD, but that they will continue to have strong social and language skills. We will also bring a group of adolescents with OO, current ASD, or TD to campus, to complete a number of clinical assessments and an MRI session. We will measure the connections among regions of the brain that are critical in social and language tasks. A comparison of “functional connectivity” across our three groups will shed light on how the brain changes when children undergo the very dramatic symptom reductions observed in OO.

Our previous research carefully documented the existence of optimal outcome from ASD; it raised strong public interest because of its innovation, and has had a broad clinical impact on affected families and the public at large. It also raised scientific questions about the long-held assumption that ASD is necessarily a life-long condition, and about the mechanisms by which this might differ among individuals. The next stage of this study capitalizes on the opportunity to follow a cohort of unique, well-characterized OO individuals into adulthood; young adult outcomes in OO have never before been examined, and there is an urgent clinical need for more information about educational, vocational, and social abilities in a group with confirmed autism in early childhood and with direct assessment of early behavioral predictors. Parents may be encouraged to express developmental concerns early, physicians may be encouraged to screen for autism early, and therapists may be guided to work on delays, skills, and symptoms that can be particularly predictive of outcomes. In cases where these skills show slow response to treatment, parents may be better poised to plan for the future.

 

Additional research projects Dr. Eigsti works on include studies of gesture, speech processing, and implicit learning in autism spectrum disorder.

 

UConn’s Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences has funded a pilot study of reading expertise in autism. In this study, Eigsti along with collaborators Jim Magnuson, Elena Grigorenko, and their students, are studying how some children with autism, without the benefit of explicit teaching, come to be able to read words at a level beyond what would be expected at their age and developmental level. The project examines the neural and genetic correlates of this precocious print-speech decoding ability (called “hyperlexia”).

The group hypothesizes that unusual patterns of cognitive and social strengths and weaknesses in ASD result in part from atypical connectivity between brain areas supporting various functions and reward circuitry. A provocative recent theory suggests that heightened interest in a very specific topic or activity (like reading) could arise when “reward circuitry” gets connected to circuits supporting that interest. Hyperlexia provides a perfect opportunity to study circumscribed interests in a domain for which the typical development is fairly well understood both behaviorally and neurally. This project uses functioning imaging to assess the neural organization of reading and reward circuitry in children with hyperlexia, including a pair of twins who both share an interest in reading.