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a woman puts a patient into the MRI

Scanning for Sensitivity

Many children with autism experience hypersensitivity to visual, auditory or tactile cues such as bright lights, loud noises or hot, cold or vibrating objects. This hypersensitivity can make it difficult for children and families to experience new things, such as activities in loud, bright public places or eating new foods.  In order to better understand these hypersensitivities in children with autism, Dr. Shawn Christ and a team of researchers at the University of Missouri Brain Imaging Center and Thompson Center are working to study the brains of children with autism.

Dr. Christ, the director of the MU Brain Imaging Center, an associate professor of psychology in the MU School of Arts and Science and an adjunct faculty with the Thompson Center, is working to identify a woman looks at a brain scan image and talks into a microphonebiomarkers within the brain that may be related to these hypersensitivities.

“The brain is a system of networks that all have different focus and function,” Christ said. “One network that we are particularly interested in is called the ‘salience’ network. It is responsible for alerting us to the presence of salient stimuli in the environment and coordinating our response to such stimuli.  We believe that the hypersensitivity experienced by some children with autism may be related to over-activation and involvement of this network. We want to study how this works by looking at the brain in action with our imaging technology.”

The researchers suspect that these hypersensitivities may also be related in some way to sleep issues, which between 50 and 80 percent of children with autism also experience. Research participants will be asked to keep a sleep diary during the study to compare how children with sensitivities sleep with children who do not have these sensitivities.

“Because neural networks are all interconnected, we think there is a good chance that sleep and hypersensitivity are intertwined in some sort of vicious cycle,” Christ said. “Perhaps hypersensitivity makes it harder for some children to sleep, which in turn makes them more sensitive due to exhaustion. We want to explore how the brain works in this way, which will go a long way in helping determine the best way to treat children with these issues.”

Once the researchers are able to identify biomarkers within the brain that indicate hypersensitivity and potential sleep problems, they hope to perform a follow-up study that includes sleep interventions for children with these sensitivities.

“The ultimate idea is that if we can address sleep problems in children with hypersensitivities, it may help improve those sensitivities,” Christ said. “However, we have quite a bit of research to do before we can get to that point.”

Christ and MU doctoral students Kelly Boland and Katherine Bellesheim are currently recruiting children ages 11-15 to participate in this study. Participants must be diagnosed with autism, but both children with and without hypersensitivities are needed. The study will consist of a short brain imaging session in an MRI machine as well as keeping a sleep diary for a short period of time. To participate or learn more, contact Kelly Boland at 573-884-8109 or