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Eli Miller, 15, reacts to a gaming triumph.

“Many times the children report that sounds, touch, and visual [stimulation] — and even eye contact — are difficult for them to process,” McCormack says. “In general, children with autism have a lot of anxiety and difficulty adapting to new situations.”

Alex’s parents, Greg and Kathy Harvey, signed him up for McCormack’s experiment with the hope that neurofeedback will “retrain” their son’s brain to perform better, thus improving his ability to pay attention and more effectively deal with everyday stress.

Alex is on the high-functioning end of the “autism spectrum disorder," or ASD, range. ASD is used to characterize autism's varied manifestations, from hardly noticeable to extremely debilitating. The diagnosis of autism in the United States has increased tenfold in the last decade to 1 in 150 children, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified autism as a national public health crisis.

In response to that crisis, MU in 2005 launched the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, a facility providing diagnostic, assessment and treatment services for children, youth and young adults. In 2008 it served 1,736 individuals.

Researchers from across the MU campus are engaged in more than 30 autism-related research projects, and the Thompson Center is a partner in three major national research networks: the Autism Treatment Network, Simons Simplex Collection and the Interactive Autism Network.

McCormack’s project ranks as one of the more high-profile of these investigations. The Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, based in Westphalia, Mo., contacted the Thompson Center two years ago about funding a study on neurofeedback as a treatment for autism. McCormack, who came to MU in 2003 with almost 30 years of experience in academia and occupational therapy, agreed to take on the project.

“I like to investigate on the edge of science to demonstrate that interventions with clinical effectiveness have research significance,” he says. “This is where much breakthrough research is accomplished.”

He began his pilot study in summer 2008 with eight boys, ranging in age from 6 to 16, each of whom was on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. All the subjects were male not by design but because autism is much more prevalent in the male population. McCormack says the study did not include children with more severe autism because neurofeedback training tends to require more cooperation and focus than these children can give.

The study followed a single-subject, multiple-measure design. To get a “before” picture of the children, McCormack used a variety of assessments. He weighed the children on a standardized social responsiveness scale developed by John Constantino from Washington University in St. Louis. The 65-item rating scale, according to a description by Constantino published on the website of the Western Psychological Services company, “measures the severity of autism spectrum symptoms as they occur in natural social settings.  Completed by a parent or teacher in just 15 to 20 minutes, the SRS provides a clear picture of a child's social impairments, assessing social awareness, social information processing, capacity for reciprocal social communication, social anxiety/avoidance, and autistic preoccupations and traits.”

McCormack next gave the children a “test for variables of attention.” This involved asking the kids to watch a box displayed on a computer screen. A small black square constantly popped up in different areas. When the black square appeared at the box’s top, the children were instructed to press a handheld clicker. The computer scored the children’s reaction times in microseconds, while also recording the times they clicked too soon, clicked in error or failed to click at all.

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2009 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.


Illumination home. Spring 2009 Table of Contents.