Every spring DISCOVER: Marquette University Research and Scholarship showcases some of the most interesting research happening on Marquette's campus. Learn more through the links below.
Students who participate show external measures of progress, including more friends and get-togethers and improved social skills that help them navigate the tricky social waters of middle and high school. But Van Hecke is the first to examine whether the PEERS intervention changes kids’ brains. And, indeed, it does. Using electroencephalography to compare teens’ brain activity before and after the 14-week program, she has seen significant changes in the parietal-temporal lobe, which is related to social behaviors, and in the frontal lobe, the “executive,” decision-making part of the brain. “Even though autism is considered a brain-based disorder, no intervention to date, anywhere, for any age group, has ever looked at dynamic change in the autistic brain due to intervention,” Van Hecke says. The focus on what autistic kids can do has never been more important. “Autism rates are increasing at an exponential rate. We went from 1 in 10,000 in the 1980s, and now we’re down to 1 in 110. The rate of increase is alarming, and the autism research community is very focused on understanding why. However, it’s also crucial to help people with autism lead satisfying lives now,” Van Hecke says. Marquette’s PEERS program started in fall 2010, and 35 students have gone through it so far. Though Van Hecke is still gathering more data — using kids on the program’s waiting list as the control group — she plans to present her early findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Toronto in May. With funding from the Autism Society of Southeast Wisconsin, Marquette is able to offer PEERS to families for free. Families from as far as Montana and Pennsylvania have asked to participate, 4 Discover and some drive for hours to attend the weekly sessions. Van Hecke first became interested in autistic brain activity while studying the neurological and physiological responses in children with autism to people they know and people they don’t know. “Much of the research is ‘They don’t do this, and they don’t do that, and they lack this.’ And what I’ve seen is that children with autism will do much more with someone who is familiar to them,” she says. “It’s when we bring this unfamiliar tester in the room that they shut down.” Sure enough, she found that autistic children had the same neurological responses as children without autism when reading a story with their caregiver — but their heart rate sped up in the presence of the nonparent. “So really the heart of autism is a mobilization or a flight or fight response to unfamiliar people. It’s not all people,” she says. But that fear of others can cause problems as the child enters school and becomes increasingly isolated. About half of autistic kids have average or high IQs, and it’s only their social interactions that reveal that anything’s wrong, she says. “You’ll say, ‘Oh, Johnny is interested in video games, and you’re interested in video games. What could you do if you hung out together?’ And they’ll have no idea. You have to make that leap for them,” she says. “The shy kid will still know what to do, but the action is impaired. In autism, it’s both the knowing and the action. They may want to make friends, but they don’t understand how.” Amy Van Hecke Figure 1: Pre-intervention alpha EEG activity in participants with autism. Red indicates more activity, white indicates moderate to low activity and blue shading indicates even lower activity. Activity shown is in the alpha frequency band, which is inverse to overall brain activity. This image depicts low activity in temporal-parietal areas responsible for social information processing. Figure 2: Post-intervention alpha EEG activity. Figure 1 Figure 2 White shading shows a decrease in alpha band activity. This image shows increased neural activity in temporal-parietal areas responsible for social information processing. Figure 3: Pre-intervention gamma EEG activity. Activity shown is in the gamma frequency band. This image depicts low-moderate activity in frontal areas responsible for social decision-making. Figure 4: Post-intervention gamma EEG activity. This image shows increased neural activity in frontal areas responsible for social decision-making. Figure 3 Figure 4