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Vavrus gives talk at National Conference on Teacher Training in Tanzania

Dr. Frances VavrusFrances Vavrus, professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development (OLPD), participated in the National Conference on Teacher Training in Tanzania during the first week of April and gave a talk entitled The Local Picture: Contextual Considerations for Teacher Training in Tanzania. The conference was attended by representatives of the Tanzanian Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, the World Bank, Save the Children, Peace Corps, and a number of Tanzanian universities and non-governmental organizations.  Dr. Vavrus has been involved in teacher professional development in Tanzania since 2006 as a facilitator and researcher studying the changing educational policy landscape in the country as it affects teachers’ lives.

Ambit Network releases simple, accurate trauma screening tool

The Ambit Network works to improve access to quality care for traumatized children by giving practitioners the skills and resources they need to address mental health issues with evidence-based practices.

One of the common requests Ambit receives from practitioners is a tool to quickly and accurately screen children for possible child trauma. With that in mind, Ambit developed and released the University of Minnesota Traumatic Stress Screen for Children and Adolescents (TSSCA) that:

  • Has high sensitivity (it screens in those children and youth with trauma symptoms)
  • Has high specificity (it screens out those children and youth who do not have trauma symptoms)
  • Is brief and easily administered by professionals and paraprofessionals in child serving systems.

The screening tool is already in use at agencies within and outside Minnesota. It is available to clinicians, case workers, educators, and any other staff who work with children ages 5 to 18 that may have experienced a traumatic event and are in need of services. Learn more and download the tool here.

An extensive review of existing trauma instruments went into developing the tool, combining common criteria and distilling down into the five most powerful and predictive items. For more information on the methodology behind the tool, contact ITR’s Chris Bray at bray0021@umn.edu or (612) 624-3748.

Ambit Network is housed within CEHD’s Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health, one of the several ways ITR is working to bridge the gap between research and practice in children’s mental health.

Billington collaborates on NSF-funded grant to create interactive science education games

Barbara Billington, a science lecturer in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, will collaborate with University of Minnesota colleagues and educational technology company Andamio Games on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to produce a series of tablet-based lessons and challenges to help high school students master concepts related to photosynthesis and cell respiration. This project will enable students to learn difficult science concepts using a collaborative gaming approach that aims to significantly increase student engagement and understanding.

As part of the grant, Billington will partner with life science teachers from Saint Paul Public Schools to conduct a classroom study in the second year of the project. Lessons will be designed and research directed by both Billington and her colleagues Sehoya Cotner, associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, and Christopher Desjardins, research associate at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement.

“Science teacher feedback in Phase I of the project reconfirmed the value of our multi-player approach and also led us to the addition of a virtual biology lab,” said Andamio Games president Adam Gordon. “Teachers wanted their students to get a practical experience of scientific experimentation — including when it doesn’t go quite as expected — independent of the usual costs and time commitments for conventional lab experiments.”

Billington has a unique understanding of science classrooms after seven years teaching high school biology. She earned both her teacher licensure and Ph.D. in science education from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, where her current research focuses on training pre-service teachers and gender equity in STEM education.

Find out more about the science education programs in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

 

 

American Academy of Arts and Sciences honors Megan Gunnar

Megan Gunnar

Megan Gunnar, director of the Institute of Child Development in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), has been elected to the 2017 class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is one of three University of Minnesota professors and 228 national and international scholars, artists, philanthropists, and business leaders elected this year.

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of the country’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers. This is the 237th class of members elected. It includes winners of the Pulitzer Prize and the Wolf Prize, MacArthur Fellows, Fields Medalists, Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of Arts recipients, and Academy Award, Grammy Award, Emmy Award, and Tony Award winners.

Gunnar is one of the nation’s leading researchers in child development and developmental psychobiology. Her work focuses on understanding how stress early in life “gets under the skin” to shape the body’s stress response systems and neurobehavioral development.

“Professor Gunnar is an exceptional faculty member whose research and leadership in her field has improved the lives of many children,” said Jean Quam, CEHD dean. “The University of Minnesota and the College of Education and Human Development are extremely proud of her accomplishments.”

Gunnar holds the University’s highest faculty honors as both a Regents Professor and Distinguished McKnight University Professor. She was recently elected to the National Academy of Education and has been honored with lifetime achievement awards by the American Psychological Association, Division 7 Developmental Psychology, the Society for Research in Child Development, and the Association for Psychological Science. Gunnar has a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

The 2017 class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences will be inducted at a ceremony on October 7, 2017, in Cambridge, MA.

McComas named CEHD President’s Community Engaged Scholar

Jennifer McComas with award
Jennifer McComas with the award presented to her on March 30

Jennifer McComas, associate chair and special education professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, is the CEHD nominee for this year’s President’s Community Engaged Scholar award. This award recognizes  faculty involvement in public service and encourages and emphasizes civic engagement as a permanent priority of the College of Education and Human Development.

McComas was recognized on March 30 in a University-wide ceremony hosted by the Office for Public Engagement and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost.

“Jennifer is highly deserving of the award,” says Department of Educational Psychology chair, Geoffrey Maruyama. “She has worked over the past decade in Minneapolis Public Schools, first in North Minneapolis, then with Anishinabe Academy, and recently, she added tele-health research to connect with rural communities,” says Maruyama. “These and other projects reflect her deep commitment to engaged research and to doing work that makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Please join us in congratulating Professor McComas on this tremendous accomplishment!

Vavrus cowrites art of storytelling article in University World News

Dr. Frances VavrusFrances Vavrus, professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development (OLPD), and her colleague at the University of Wisconsin, Lesley Bartlett, have an article in the most recent issue of University World News entitled “Why academics need to learn the art of storytelling.” They argue that the spread of ‘alternative facts’ makes it even more important for academics to ensure their research is accessible to the general public. They explain how the writing of compelling personal stories about our research participants and our own research journeys can enhance the accessibility of scholarship.

Hewitt accepts University’s Innovation Award

Amy Hewitt, holding the award, accepting it on behalf of the DirectCourse team, who are also in the picture.
Amy Hewitt (fifth from right) accepted the award on behalf of the DirectCourse team (pictured).

Crediting her colleagues at DirectCourse, the Institute on Community Integration’s Amy Hewitt accepted a Committee’s Choice Award at the University of Minnesota’s 2017 Innovation Awards on March 28.

Hosted by the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research and the Office for Technology Commercialization, the event at the McNamara Alumni Center recognized 220 University inventors whose technology had been licensed or patented between July 2014 and June 2016. Hewitt’s award was one of only four Innovation Awards presented, all of which recognize the accomplishments of outstanding University innovators who have demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit, are actively engaged in developing new innovations and transitioning those technologies to the commercial market, and have made an impact on society.

DirectCourse is an online training curriculum designed to empower support and care professionals to help people with intellectual, developmental, physical, and psychiatric disabilities, and older adults, lead meaningful lives within their communities. During last year alone, it provided more than 6 million hours of training to over 500,000 learners in 41 states and abroad.

Hewitt has led the research, development, and management of DirectCourse over the past 15 years, working with a team of staff at ICI, its business partners at Elsevier, and its community roots. “I am delighted that this award recognizes an ‘invention’ that was created by and for the community in alignment with our university’s land grant mission to promote education and collaboration that advances knowledge which benefits communities, the state, and the world,” Hewitt told the gathering. “DirectCourse was not created in a laboratory on campus: the community was its laboratory and this has made all the difference. The learning provided by DirectCourse has had an immediate and lasting effect on hundreds of thousands of direct support professionals and the people with disabilities they support.”

Image of Amy Hewitt in a short video about DirectCourse.
Amy Hewitt speaks about DirectCourse in this short video.

The photograph (at top of post) was taken at the awards ceremony. Pictured, from left to right, are Bill Waibel (Elsevier), Barb Kleist, Jennifer Hall-Lande, Macdonald Metzger, Mark Olson, Barbara Cullen (Elsevier), Merrie Haskins, Susan ONell, Claire Benway, Kelly Nye-Lengerman, Amy Hewitt, Dan Raudenbush (Elsevier), Kristin Dean, David R. Johnson, and Bill Tapp (co-founder). Click here for more information about the awards and a short video.

In memorium: Clifford Hooker

Clifford Hooker, professor emeritus and a national expert in school law, passed away on November 15, 2016, in St. Paul at the age of 96. Hooker was known as a master teacher, mentoring students and fostering internships, always engaged in the community and statewide. He authored The Courts and Education published in 1978 and conceived of—then served 30 years as the chair of the editorial advisory committee for—West’s Education Law Reporter.

Professor Hooker was born in Illinois, the son of a sharecropper and a mother who ensured he was able to attend the local one-room school. As valedictorian of McClure High School’s class of ’38, he received free tuition to attend teachers college. He graduated and married his first wife, Avelyn, in 1941, before serving in the Navy aboard the USS Massachusetts in the Pacific. In the post-war years their children Sherrill and Donn were born, and he worked in Illinois public education as a shop teacher, principal, and superintendent. He completed his Ed.D. at Indiana University in 1955 and a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University before taking his first academic position at the University of Pittsburgh.

In 1958, Clifford Hooker joined the U of M faculty, from 1964 to 1972 chairing the Department of Educational Administration, which would become what is now the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development (OLPD). He founded the Educational Administration doctoral track and was influential in a 1965 restructuring of the college that reduced hierarchy and fostered faculty participation in decision-making. He also helped to found the Midwest Council for Educational Administration in 1971 in response to changes in licensing requirements for Minnesota school administrators. MCEA included higher education institutions from North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Manitoba, and Minnesota.

Professor Hooker was active in many sports before it was popular to stay fit, including biking, tennis, jogging, barefoot waterskiing, golfing, and downhill skiing. He designed and built a cabin on Pelican Lake in 1965 and shared it for departmental retreats. He also got his colleagues to join him in canoeing in the boundary waters. Officially retiring in 1991, he remained active in the field, consulting widely and supporting educational leadership.

He is survived by his wife, Leslie Gerstman, their daughter Sarah, and two grandchildren.

Gifts in memory of Professor Clifford Hooker may be made to the Educational Evaluation and Policy Studies Fellowship, Fund #6027, University of Minnesota Foundation.

Award-winning book on sport management theory features chapters by Inoue, Kane, and Kihl

Three School of Kinesiology faculty contributed chapters to an award-winning book on sport management theory.

Routledge Handbook of Theory in Sport Management was selected as an Outstanding Academic Title 2016 by CHOICE magazine, published by the Association of College and Research Libraries. Yuhei Inoue, Ph.D., Mary Jo Kane, Ph.D., and Lisa Kihl, Ph.D., each wrote chapters. This is the first book to trace the intellectual contours of theory in sport management, and to explain, critique and celebrate the importance of sport management theory in academic research, teaching and learning, and in the development of professional practice.

Inoue and Kihl contributed to the Managerial Theories section with their chapters, “Developing a Theory of Suffering and Academic Corruption in Sport” (Kihl) and “Applying Strategic CSR in Sport” (Inoue). Kane contributed the chapter “The Continuum Theory: Challenging Traditional Conceptualization and Practices of Sport” in the section Sociocultural Theories. Dr. Kane is director of the School of Kinesiology’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, and Dr. Kihl is an affiliated scholar in the Tucker Center.

CEHD’s top rankings reflect innovative programs, district partnerships

The University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) is ranked 12th among public professional schools of education, 21st among all schools, in the 2018 U.S. News and World Report rankings of graduate schools. CEHD maintains a #8 ranking in special education and moves up to #9 in educational psychology. CEHD’s developmental psychology program (Institute of Child Development) is #1 in the country.

CEHD is a world leader in developing innovative programs to address opportunity gaps in child development, teaching, and learning. Consider its outstanding partnership programs with school districts in Minnesota that apply evidence-based teaching methodologies to strengthen schools. Note also the impact of recent groundbreaking research on autism, which has uncovered new patterns of brain development in infants. CEHD’s productivity last year included $44.3 million of externally funded research.

“Our college continues to reach new heights of excellence in graduate teaching, research, and outreach,” said Dean Jean K. Quam. “We are focused on improving the lives of students across Minnesota, the nation, and the world.”

Learn more about CEHD’s top-rated master’s and doctoral programs.

Rankings methodology: U.S. News surveyed 379 schools granting education doctoral degrees. It calculates rankings based on quality assessments from peer institutions and school superintendents nationwide, student selectivity, and faculty research and resources, which includes student/faculty ratio and faculty awards as well as support for research.

Carlson awarded Distinguished McKnight University Professorship

Dr. Stephanie Carlson

Stephanie M. Carlson, Ph.D., professor and director of research in the Institute of Child Development, has been awarded the Distinguished McKnight University Professorship, which honors the University of Minnesota’s highest-achieving mid-career faculty. Carlson is an internationally recognized leader in the study of executive function.

As a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, Carlson will receive a $100,000 grant for research and scholarly activities, and carry the title throughout her University career. Carlson is one of six University professors receiving the award in 2017. Three CEHD professors have earned the award previously, including Frank Symons of educational psychology, and Megan Gunnar and Ann Masten, both in the Institute of Child Development.

Through her research, Carlson has developed innovative ways of measuring executive function – or the set of skills that helps individuals pay attention, control impulses and think flexibly – in very young children. She has also made discoveries about the role of executive function in other aspects of human development, including decision-making and creativity.

Her accomplishments include co-developing the Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS), a testing app that measures executive function and early learning readiness in children. The MEFS is the only early learning readiness assessment measuring executive function that can be used with children as young as two years old. To help put the tool in the hands of early educators, she co-founded the tech start-up Reflection Sciences and now serves as its CEO.

“Stephanie Carlson not only has conducted ground-breaking research that has advanced the field of cognitive development, but she also has developed practical tools for early educators,” said CEHD Dean Jean Quam. “She is an engaged professor, researcher and mentor to her students, and an outstanding asset to the college.”

Carlson and the other winners of this year’s Distinguished McKnight University Professorships will be recognized at the May Board of Regents meeting and honored at a celebratory dinner.

Audit by Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking has big impact on St. Paul police-community relations

When the St. Paul City Council voted to remove police officers from the city’s Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission last December, School of Social Work Professor Mark Umbreit was a little stunned, but also proud.

photo of Mark Umbreit
Mark Umbreit

Umbreit, who is the director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking in the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota, was a part an audit team from the center that recommended 18 changes to commission operations, the most controversial being that police officers should no longer serve as voting members of the commission.

photo of Jennifer Blevins
Jennifer Blevins

Police officers have been voting members since the commission was established in 1994, and, although a 2009 “Report of the Best Practices Assessment of the St. Paul Police Department” had recommended removing them, that recommendation was never implemented. So when the auditors started their work in the summer of 2015, Umbreit said, they believed “it was simply not realistic to talk about removing the police officers.”

photo of Raj Sethuraju
Raj Sethuraju

Two associates of the center, social work doctoral student Jennifer Blevins and Dr. Raj Sethuraju, assistant professor of criminology at Metropolitan State University, worked with Umbreit on the audit, with Blevins taking the lead.

The audit included interviews with 23 key stakeholders in the commission’s process, including seven current members, five previous members, two current and two former administrators, the police union president, the current police chief, a police former chief, the senior commander of the police Internal Affairs unit, and three community stakeholders.

They also reviewed 40 commission memos from 2011 through 2014, which included a total of approximately 310 cases of complaints about police conduct, to determine what the commission did once a complaint and the investigation files were presented to them.
The auditors also looked at literature on civilian review of police conduct from throughout the United States. In their search, they could not find one civilian review board that had police officers on it, Blevins said, although she noted that one could exist that they were unable to find.

As the audit progressed, Umbreit said, they were hearing from people who felt very strongly that police officers should not be members of the commission.

“We decided we could not make a recommendation based on what we thought was politically realistic, but on what we believed to be the best course of action based on our analysis of the data we gathered,” Blevins said.

After the audit report was released in October 2015, city officials announced plans for gathering public input. They asked the center to organize three feedback sessions to allow city officials to hear from community members in order to decide how to move forward with the audit recommendations. The sessions were held in November and December of 2015.

“It was through the community conversations that people started to see the possibility of real change,” Umbreit said.

After the sessions, grass-roots groups began organizing to push for an all-civilian review board. By the end of 2016, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “St. Paul residents and at least 18 community organizations have been calling on council members to make it an independent, all-civilian commission.”

On December 7, 2016, a diverse crowd of people filled the St. Paul City Council chambers and an overflow room as the council held a public hearing on the proposed changes. The Pioneer Press reported that more than 35 people addressed the council, with most of them speaking in favor of removing police officers from the panel. The council voted 5 to 2 in favor of the change; final adoption followed at the council’s December 14 meeting.

“Particularly with the current very troubling times our nation is facing, this provides a beacon of hope of people power, real and effective social change, and a true academic and community partnership,” Umbreit said.

“We put out the information and gave people what was needed to come to a conclusion and take action. It feels good that people paid attention and used it … I am proud of this work,” he said.

Davison recognized for Outstanding Contributions to Graduate and Professional Education

Mark L. Davison

Mark Davison, John P. Yackel Professor in Educational Assessment and Measurement in the Department of Educational Psychology’s quantitative methods in education program, was recently honored with an Outstanding Contributions to Graduate and Professional Education Award from Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, and the University of Minnesota Alumni Association. This award recognizes excellent teachers who engage students in a community of intellectual inquiry, are significant mentors and role models, and develop and promote activities that help students understand the larger context of their intended professions.

One of a select group of University of Minnesota teachers chosen for this honor, Davison will receive a one-time $15,000 award and become a member of the University’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers, which serves the University through various activities that aim to improve teaching and learning.

“We all are very pleased to see Mark’s important contributions to graduate education recognized in such a meaningful way.  His highly accomplished former students made a persuasive case for him receiving the award,” said Geoffrey Maruyama, department chair.

Davision will receive his award in a ceremony at McNamara Alumni Center on April 27, and, along with his fellow recipients, will be introduced to the University’s Board of Regents meeting May 11-12.

Please join us in congratulating Dr. Davison on this well-deserved honor!

Gunnar elected to membership in the National Academy of Education

Dr. Megan Gunnar

Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Child Development, has been elected to membership in the National Academy of Education (NAEd).

The NAEd aims to advance high-quality education research and its use in policy and practice. The academy consists of 209 U.S. members and 11 foreign associates who are elected on the basis of outstanding scholarship related to education. Gunnar was one of 14 new members elected to membership this year.

As an NAEd member, Gunnar will play a role in NAEd’s professional development programs and serve on expert study panels that address pressing issues in education.

Gunnar will be inducted during a ceremony for new members at the 2017 NAEd Annual Meeting in November.

Five OLPD alumni win dissertation awards

Five alumni from the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development have recently won dissertation awards.

Matt Schuelka (EDPA PhD-comparative and international development education, 2014) has received the 2017 South Asia SIG Best Dissertation Award from the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES). His dissertation, entitled Constructing Disability in Bhutan: Schools, Structures, Policies, and Global Discourses, used a vertical (comparative) case study approach to explore the multiple levels of policy-making that have shaped inclusive education discourse and practice in Bhutan. This year-long ethnographic study, which involved participant-observation, interviewing, and critical policy analysis, has served as the basis for an edited book about education in Bhutan and numerous journal articles published by Dr. Schuelka during the past few years.

Anna Farrell (EDPA PhD-comparative and international development education, 2017) has received the 2017 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the Language Issues Special Interest Group from the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES). Her dissertation, entitled There Is No Nation without a Language (Ní tír gan teanga): Language Policy and the Irish Dancing Commission, raises important questions about how language policy affects cultural and political identity, particularly in post-colonial contexts like Ireland.  Dr. Farrell will be honored at the CIES meeting in March in Atlanta.

Leonard Taylor (EDPA PhD-higher education, 2016) is the First Place 2017 Doctoral Student Awardee bestowed by the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education (AABHE) for his dissertation entitled Organizational Learning for Student Success: Exploring the Roles of Institutional Actors.

Corbyn Smyth (EdD-higher education, 2016) has received the Dissertation of the Year Award from the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) for his dissertation entitled Where All May Meet on Common Ground: Elements of College Unions Evident in Campus Community. Dr. Smyth will be honored at the awards ceremony during the 2017 annual conference in Philadelphia held March 21st.

Molly Wickam (WHRE PhD, higher education, 2015) has received the Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation award from the Association for Research in Business Education (ARBE) for her dissertation entitled Enhancing Employability Skills in Graduate Business Programs: Service-Learning in Capstone Courses. Dr. Wickam will present at the 2017 Business Education Conference on April 12th.

 

Stebleton and Jehangir make first-year experience presentation at UMN’s Focusing on Student Success Conference

Michael Stebleton and Rashne Jehangir, associate professors in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development (OLPD), presented recently at the University of Minnesota’s Focusing on Student Success Conference.  Their presentation, Empowering Students through High Impact Practices, focused on the highlights of the College of Education and Human Development’s first-year experience program.  Specifically, they showcased examples of students’ work including documentary short films.

OLPD graduate student receives Mestenhauser Student Award for Excellence

Takehito Kamata, a Ph.D. student (higher education track) in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development (OLPD), is a recipient of the Mestenhauser Student Award for Excellence in Campus Internationalization recognizing outstanding student contributions to international education. Kamata will receive his award at a ceremony held on March 3, 2017.

 

Read more and RSVP.

Rec Admin students develop report for Three Rivers Park District on barriers to underrepresented groups

Sara Hansen and Tyler Tegtmeier, both Recreation Administration students in the School of Kinesiology, have developed a report for the Three Rivers Park District to research recreation opportunities for underrepresented populations in the district’s public parks. The 27-page report of their findings provides recommendations to reduce barriers to parks and recreation facilities by underrepresented groups. The report was presented to the organizations involved in the study for their consideration and determination of next steps.

Hansen and Tegtmeier proceeded with the report under the guidance of Recreation Administration Director Connie Magnuson, Ph.D., along with Alex McKinney, Recreation Supervisor at Three Rivers Park District.

C&I’s Blanca Caldas Wins Outstanding Dissertation Award

The American Educational Research Association’s (AERA’s) Bilingual Education Research SIG selects the top three dissertations in the field of bilingual education research each year as outstanding dissertations. Assistant professor in Curriculum & Instruction, Blanca Caldas was honored with the second place Outstanding Dissertation Award for her doctoral thesis, “Performing the Advocate Bilingual Teacher: Drama-based Interventions for Future Story Making.”

Caldas’s doctoral dissertation focused on exploring how critical drama-based pedagogical techniques in the development of future bilingual teachers can prepare them to become leaders and advocates inside and outside the classroom. In this yearlong study, the participants—a cohort of pre-service bilingual teachers—engaged in the re-imagining of the oral narratives of experienced bilingual teachers by physically reenacting their stories and providing alternative endings.

“My research aims to study the outcomes of pedagogical practices for the preparation of future bilingual teachers that have the potential to empower themselves to not only think critically about the issues that surround bilingual education, but also to engage in leadership and advocacy inside and outside the classroom,” says Caldas.

Caldas brings her research and pedagogical expertise to the Second Language Education program area in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, working to advance the field of bilingual education and bilingual teacher preparation.

Learn more about the programs offered in second language education in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction.

 

 

UMN researchers assist in identifying autism biomarkers in infancy

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in infants with older siblings with autism, researchers from around the country, including the University of Minnesota (UMN), were able to predict which infants would later meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at two years of age, with 80 percent accuracy.

Jed Elison, Ph.D. and Jason Wolff, Ph.D.

“The findings lay the foundation for the field to move toward attempting to implement interventions before the symptoms that define autism consolidate into a diagnosis,” said study co-author Jed Elison, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UMN Institute of Child Development.

“Typically, the earliest an autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three. But for babies with older autistic siblings, our imaging approach may help predict during the first year of life which babies are most likely to receive an autism diagnosis at 24 months,” said senior author Joseph Piven, M.D., the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

This research project included hundreds of children from across the country and was led by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina (UNC). The project’s other clinical sites included the University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In addition to the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the College of Charleston, and New York University (see ibisnetwork.org for more information.)

For this study, published today in Nature, the team of researchers conducted MRI scans of infants at six, 12 and 24 months of age. They found that the babies who developed autism experienced a hyper-expansion of brain surface area from six to 12 months, as compared to babies who had an older sibling with autism but did not themselves show evidence of the condition at 24 months of age. Increased growth rate of surface area in the first year of life was linked to increased growth rate of overall brain volume in the second year of life. Brain overgrowth was tied to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year.

The researchers then took these data – MRIs of brain volume, surface area, cortical thickness at 6 and 12 months of age, and sex of the infants – and used a computer program to identify a way to classify babies most likely to meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age. The computer program developed the best algorithm to accomplish this, and the researchers applied the algorithm to a separate set of study participants.

The researchers found that brain differences at 6 and 12 months of age in infants with older siblings with autism correctly predicted eight out of 10 infants who would later meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age in comparison to those infants with older ASD siblings who did not meet criteria for autism at 24 months.

According to the researchers, the findings may have implications for early detection and intervention in children who have older siblings with autism before a diagnosis is typically established. Diagnosis of ASD typically occurs after 24 months of age, the earliest time when behavioral characteristics of ASD can be observed. Intervening early could lead to improved outcomes, as the brain is more malleable in the first years of life compared with later in childhood.

“This area of research is incredibly exciting because it provides an opportunity to understand how autism unfolds early in life,” said Jason Wolff, Ph.D., an assistant professor in educational psychology at UMN and a study co-author. “It provides new clues about the timing and specific mechanisms of brain development that precede a diagnosis. It also offers the unprecedented possibility of predicting whether or not a child will develop autism based on neurobiological data.”

“These findings not only are significant for the field of autism, but they also could inform the broader field of psychiatry and prevention science as it relates to various psychiatric conditions,” Elison said. “This research highlights the best of contemporary science. It’s collaborative, and informed by technology and multiple areas of expertise, with the common goal of helping families.”

The National Institutes of Health funded this study.

See media coverage of this story in the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, KARE TV, WCCO TV, and KMSP TV.