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UC Davis MIND Institute seeks teens, young adults for imaging study of how brain transitions to adulthood

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Researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute are seeking teens and young adults ages 12-22 to participate in an innovative brain imaging study aimed at understanding how the brain functions and behaviors emerge during a critical yet understudied period of development: the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Marjorie Solomon, licensed psychologist and Oates Endowed Chair, focuses on clinical intervention programs for children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Marjorie Solomon, licensed psychologist and Oates Endowed Chair, focuses on clinical intervention programs for children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder.

“Some research studies suggest that young adults with autism are at great risk for having poor outcomes in adulthood as measured by having meaningful friendships, being competitively employed and living independently. But our experience working with teens and young adults on the spectrum tells us that this is not always the case,” said Marjorie Solomon, Oates Endowed Chair in Lifespan Development in Autism, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the UC Davis MIND Institute and principal investigator of the study.

“Through the Cognitive Control in Autism (CoCoA) study, we hope to learn more about the neurobiology of this period of development so that we can maximize growth in teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to help them learn, thrive and achieve their full potential in life,” she added.

Flexibility in processing information, changing actions a focus

For the five year study, Solomon and her team will focus on cognitive control, an executive function that allows a person to flexibly process information and change actions to achieve internal goals rather than remaining rigid and inflexible. For example, if a page of text had some words printed in different colors and the goal was to read a full paragraph aloud, exercising cognitive control would allow a person to make a judgment to read the word “green” out loud even if the word is printed in red on the page.

Solomon said that the development of cognitive control is important in learning, from planning and problem solving to multitasking, and that it undergoes tremendous development through adolescence in typically developing individuals. The CoCoA study hopes to isolate the biological components that correspond to strengths and challenges in the development of cognitive control in both typically developing and ASD study participants to answer the many questions that remain.

“We don’t know if the development of cognitive control in typically developing teens is similar to adolescents with ASD and if adolescents with ASD can overcome their cognitive-control deficits as they age into their 20s,” she said. “We also would like to better understand the many strengths teens and young adults with ASD use to compensate in tasks that are difficult for them and how this relates to their functioning in daily life in adulthood.”

How to enroll in the Cognitive Control in Autism (CoCoA) study

UC Davis MIND Institute investigators plan to enroll approximately 100 children and young adults with ASD and 100 with typical development who are between the ages of 12 and 22. Study participants will be compensated for their time, receive free assessments and be given a digital file of their own brain scan. Participants must be willing to come back for assessments one-to-two times more during the five-year study period.

Participation in the study involves two visits to the UC Davis Health System campus in Sacramento, one at the MIND Institute and one at the UC Davis Imaging Research Center. During the visits, participants will fill out questionnaires, complete computer-based brainteasers and puzzles, and have their brains scanned using fMRI while completing a learning task. The fMRIs show researchers which parts of the brain are active during the tasks. After this first visit, participants will then return to the MIND Institute to participate in additional behavioral testing and a brain scan either one or two times more during the next five years.

“Scanning and assessing individuals more than once is a novel aspect of the study that will enable us to delve deeper into what occurs during development from ages 12-27,” Solomon said. “Another innovative part of the study is that we will be developing new measurements that are sensitive to important contemporary aspects of adults with typical development and those with ASD, such as communicating by using social media.”

Solomon said typically developing individuals, as well as those with ASD, have something to gain from participating in the study.“Some get the pleasure of knowing they are helping people with autism, and those with autism get free testing that may help us to better understand their unique gifts," she said. "We take the time to discuss their results and answer their questions. They also become associated with a system of care that specializes in helping people with autism. A lot of families appreciate that.”