Jeffrey Hutsler, assistant professor in the University of Nevada, Reno's Department of Psychology, and graduate student Thomas Avino were honored with the prestigious Slifka/Ritvo Innovation in Autism Research Award at the 2010 International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) on May 22 in Philadelphia. With more than 1,700 attendees and nearly 1,000 submitted abstracts from around the world, IMFAR is perhaps the largest international meeting of its kind that focuses exclusively on research into autism.
The award was given by the Alan B. Slifka Foundation, which "seeks to promote innovative research that will lead to innovative treatments and improvements in the quality of life of individuals with autism." Two awards were given. The basic research award, which includes a monetary award for continued research in autism spectrum disorders, was given to Hutsler and Avino, while an award in clinical research was given to a team from the Yale University School of Medicine.
Hutsler's laboratory studies the organization of the human cerebral cortex, the convoluted outer surface of the brain that is responsible for complex behavior and cognition. The Slifka/Ritvo award was given for a technique that he developed to examine cell patterning in the cerebral cortex of individuals with autism. Hutsler and Avino demonstrated that the border between the cell-dense “gray matter” and the deeper cell-sparse “white matter” is less distinct in autistic subjects than in sex- and age-matched control subjects. During human development, embryonic brain cells begin to climb, or migrate, into the cerebral cortex, and by five months’ gestation, virtually all are located above the “white matter.” Difficulties in this migration during the second trimester of pregnancy could be the result of genetic and/or environmental factors that impact the proper positioning of these cells in the developing brain.
Jane Picket, director of the Autism Tissue Program, the national brain banking group that provided the postmortem tissue samples utilized in the study, said that “now researchers have a mathematical model to consider in their assessments of gray/white matter as they study brain development in children with autism.”
Hutsler said, “We're very gratified to have our work in autism recognized in this way. Studying human brain tissue poses a unique set of problems and limitations relative to the study of animals. We often find ourselves either modifying or, in this case, inventing research techniques to overcome these obstacles.” Further information regarding Hutsler's lab and research can be found at the Department of Psychology.