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Autism Research Earns Distinguished Dissertation Award
May 19, 2000
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photo by: Lisa Ventre
Archive: Research News, Campus News

See Spot. See Spot run. Learning a language seems so simple when we recall the old primers from our early years in school.

But everything breaks down when a child has autism. It becomes nearly impossible to even look at Spot, let alone to learn that Spot is a dog.

Researchers believe two brain functions work together as language is acquired in childhood. The first is "joint atttention," the ability to focus along with another person on a particular object. Language acquistion apparently follows as an infant or toddler learns to "map" particular words to particular objects. For example, the word "dog" is mapped to the actual animal.

image of Murray and Creaghead

Donna Murray, a doctoral candidate in communication sciences and disorders, received one of two Distinguished Dissertation awards this year for her ground-breaking research examining the problem and helping to test a potential treatment.

"This is an area that's screaming for research," said Murray. "This award is an honor, but it's also a sign that autism is seen as a valued area for research."

That's important to Murray who spent the last 14 years as a clinician, working in community-based centers and in private practice as a leading expert in speech and language disorders among children with ASD (autism spectrum disorders). She admits she didn't set out to become an expert on autism, but her first job after graduate school in Louisville set her on a course that her adviser says will nearly assure her of national prominence.

"Donna's is really a very timely topic, helping us learn more about autism. It's an important topic that will make a real contribution," said Nancy Creaghead, department head in communication sciences and disorders and chair of Murray's dissertation committee. "She has a million ideas. She's very creative and has the possibility of doing something very powerful."

Creaghead and Murray both noted that there has been an alarming increase in the number of new cases of autism in recent years. California, for example, saw the number of cases nearly triple in just the last ten years. Researchers and medical doctors can't explain the increase, adding to the frustration of families who are also told there's no known cure or effective treatment.

There is one intriguing treatment in use across the country now. It involves injections of a porcine digestive hormone called secretin or a synthetic version of the human hormone. Tests in rats demonstrated that the brain may have cells with receptors which allow secretin to act in some capacity as a neurotransmitter or a neuromodulator in two regions, including a brain structure involved with learning and memory.

That's not enough to prove secretin can help children with autism, which is where Murray's dissertation research comes into play. Murray is working with Dr. Patricia Manning-Courtney, director of the Kelly O'Leary Center at Children's Hospital Medical Center, who is leading one of the early double-blind clinical trials of human synthetic secretin in children with autism.

Murray will focus specifically on joint attention and language acquisition, testing children before and after treatment and while taking a placebo. She hopes the data will help families of children with autism make better informed decisions on treatment and therapy.

"The research is extremely limited in this area. We have a responsibility to provide scientific, quantitative support. We have to take it into the clinic."

Creaghead noted that Murray's research will also help determine whether there is a direct connection between joint attention and language acquisition, a finding which would have implications well beyond autism.

But Murray's focus will remain on the mysterious disorder that is now the third most common developmental disability in the United States. "It's a passion," said Murray. "I want to find out more."