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Boston University College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) Professor of Psychology Helen Tager-Flusberg has been named the director of a new Autism Center of Excellence (ACE), to be located at BU. The ACE will be funded by a five-year, $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The center will support a set of research projects designed to address the question of why an estimated 25-30% of the autism population never acquires spoken language skills, even after years of conventional therapies.
Little is known about this group of children and adults, as they have rarely been included in studies on autism. The BU ACE is the first center to be established to address the critical needs of this neglected end of the autism spectrum. The research will focus on: the development of novel methods for assessing this population using innovative technologies; brain and behavioral studies that will identify the reasons why these individuals fail to acquire spoken language; and evaluation of an innovative behavioral intervention called Auditory Motor Mapping Training, or AMMT, that has shown great promise in preliminary trials in promoting speech in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“There has been almost no research on this group of children and adults, and we have designed many projects to address this gap in our knowledge,” says Tager-Flusberg, one of three principal investigators on a study of AMMT. Tager-Flusberg, a leader in the field of autism research, is president of the International Society for Autism Research.
The AMMT treatment combines the use of singing and motor activities to strengthen parts of the brain that appear abnormal in children with autism. The method is an outgrowth of Melodic Intonation Therapy, which has proven effective in helping stroke patients with aphasia recover their ability to speak according to Gottfried Schlaug, Director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at BIDMC and Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School.
After eight weeks of AMMT treatment (five days per week), the six children in the pilot study — who ranged in age from six to nine and were previously completely nonverbal — were able to approximate whole words and phrases, with improvements seen as early as two weeks into therapy.
The BU ACE brings together leading neuroscientists from Boston University in collaboration with colleagues from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Northeastern University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. NIH created the ACE Program in 2007 to launch an intense and coordinated research program into the causes of ASD and to find new treatments.