Grandparents, The Landreth Family—Catalysts for Discovery

<p>Read how the Landreths enabled important autism research</p>

How the Landreths enabled important autism research.

Autism, like other developmental disabilities, affects not only a child but also the immediate family and extended family. Grandparents play important roles-loving caregivers, creative resource finders, dedicated advocates. And in some instances, grandparents may be able to provide gifts for research to find answers that may help create a better future for their grandchild and for other children with developmental disabilities. This is the story of the Robert E. Landreth Family.

As they searched for resources to help their daughter and son-in-law raise their son with autism, Mr. and Mrs. Landreth became connected with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. As an engineer and business man, Bob Landreth understood the crucial role of research and development. The family understood the need to ask large questions in understanding and treating ASD. In 2009, their extraordinary generosity and foresight were embodied in the Landreth Family Discovery Grant, which was directed to studying sensory processing in autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

With support from the Landreth Discovery Grant, Carissa Cascio, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry, undertook research on the sense of touch in ASD, using both behavioral and brain imaging approaches. Since the early development of the touch system is guided by genes, she collaborated with Jeremy VeenstraVanderWeele, M.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry. Now, almost 2 years later, their pilot work has yielded significant findings and has helped them garner federal funding for larger studies to continue this research.

"At birth, the touch system is more developed than other senses," Cascio said. "Autism is developing in infancy, and touch plays a big role in social interaction between parents and infants. So differences in ways that infants with ASD experience touch can have serious cascading effects for later social development."

The Cascio Lab uses MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to look at the way that touch is processed in the brain. A better understanding of the brain systems involved may lead to identifying early markers for autism, allowing earlier diagnosis and intervention, as well as the possibility of more effective behavioral or pharmacological interventions.

The Cascio Lab also uses behavioral testing to look at reactions to two types of touch. The first is "social touch," where a child is touched by another person, e.g., lotion is rubbed on the skin, or a hand is stroked with a soft cloth. The second is an "internally controlled touch," or "nonsocial touch," where a child has control of what touches the skin and no other person is involved.

Using MRI, Cascio looked at two brain pathways that are known to be important in conveying sensory signals and measured how strong, or effective, those pathways were in conveying sensory information. She found that weakness in those pathways was associated with hypersensitivity to social touch, but not to nonsocial touch, in young children with ASD.

The Landreth Family Discovery Grant provided funding to enable Cascio to use the practice scanner and the MRI scanners in the Vanderbilt Institute for Imaging Science. Since not all the children with ASD in the study could do a successful MRI scan, the Discovery Grant allowed the collection of behavioral data on all children. While MRI data collection is ongoing, behavioral findings will be published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. The grant also supported Cascio’s collaboration with Veenstra-VanderWeele to investigate how genetic variation may affect defensiveness to touch.

"MRI technology is expensive, and even with our best guess of which children we’ll be able to scan, given the confining space and scanner noise, sometimes we lose data," Cascio said. "This support was critical to me as a young investigator, allowing me to conduct the study and to gather preliminary data, which has helped me garner external NIH funding."

With premilinary data from the Landreth Discovery Grant, which demonstrated the promise of this research approach, Cascio has received a National Institute of Mental Health grant of $750,000 to expand this research. Veenstra-VanderWeele has received a National Institute of Mental Health 5-year grant of $1.25 million. This investment return is 20:1. What the investment may yield in diagnosing and treating ASD? Incalculable.

Last Updated: 11/1/2012 3:24:20 PM

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