Early diagnosis of neurodevelopment disorders such as autism spectrum disorder is critical to determining effective therapies for a child, and to assure a higher quality of life.  But one thing that hinders early diagnosis is our lack of understanding of the biology of autism. 

That's one reason Matthew Mosconi focuses his research on understanding the development of behavioral and cognitive issues characteristic of autism spectrum disorder and specifically, identifying the brain mechanisms that lead to them. Additionally, his research examines brain-behavior links related to single gene conditions such as Fragile X Syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Mosconi is the director of the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Treatment (K-CART), and director of the Neurobehavioral Development Laboratory, both at the University of Kansas. In this interview, he looks back at his first four years with K-CART and shares his aspirations for autism research at KU.

How would you describe your experience at KU? 
A major appeal of KU was the great potential for collaborating with leading behavioral researchers interested in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and the strong reputation of the Life Span Institute for fostering collaborative and productive research. The reality has exceeded my expectations. People here are very eager to support each other’s work and identify collaborative opportunities. It is difficult to create and maintain an environment that actively promotes high impact research without making investigators compete with each other or experience a shark-tank type of environment – KU and the Life Span Institute have skillfully struck and maintained this balance.

What would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment at the Life Span Institute so far?
I am very proud to be part of multiple teams, including our autism center (K-CART) and my own lab, that have made significant progress towards establishing programs of research that engage families and the community as active participants in cutting-edge science. I know this sounds non-specific, but we have engaged numerous new families, individuals and community partners over the past few years. We also have created environments at the Wakarusa Research Facility and Edwards Campus that help individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders and their families feel welcome and comfortable as they engage in the research process, connect with the many resources available to support them, and then stay engaged with us as we march towards new discoveries. It has taken significant effort to build these relationships and infrastructure, and while we are not finished yet, I am proud of the significant progress we have made along these lines.   

What has been one of the most rewarding moments as a researcher?
Multiple trainees have graduated from the lab in my short time here, and they each are thriving in new faculty positions. That is awesome to see, and we have multiple very talented trainees at doctoral and postdoctoral levels that now are heading along equally promising trajectories.

What are your hopes for your future here at KU?
There are multiple long-term projects we are working on both within our autism center and within my lab. At a general level, we are hoping to build key supports that would provide important expertise for researchers at KU so that their studies can incorporate gold-standard assessment approaches and the most reliable and valid diagnostic procedures we have available. We also have multiple new ideas for helping active autism researchers at KU work even more efficiently with each other, and expanding our base. More specifically, we have combined some of the diverse expertise at KU and KUMC to help grow our training programs so that new, talented, junior investigators can rapidly develop their own independent research programs and expand our group’s reach and impact.

Few things are as important in a baby’s first year of life as nutrition – that’s a given. But new research suggests that increasing intake of an omega-3 fatty acid while pregnant has a positive effect on the fetus that continues to affect the child’s development years later.

Baby and mother

A team of scientists at the KU Life Span Institute recently authored a study that showed that pregnant women who consumed a supplement of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a nutrient added to U.S. infant formulas since 2002, tend to have children with higher fat-free body mass at 5 years old. The findings of the experimental study, presented in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest that improving maternal DHA nutrition has a favorable programming effect on the fetus that influences body composition in early childhood.

“DHA is a nutrient found in the highest concentrations in oily fish such as salmon and tuna, foods many Americans don’t eat a lot of, so they tend to get low intakes,” said Susan Carlson, professor in the Department of Dietetics & Nutrition in the School of Health Professions. “Because U.S. intakes are low and because DHA is highly concentrated in the brain where it increases dramatically in the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years of life, I have had a long interest in whether more of this nutrient is needed for optimal health during early development. DHA can be delivered to the fetus by increasing maternal intake during pregnancy and to the breast-fed infant by increasing maternal intake during lactation, which increases DHA in mothers’ milk.” 

Women with low-risk pregnancies in the Kansas City area were enrolled in the study at KU Medical Center’s Maternal and Child Nutrition and Development Lab between March 2006 and September 2009. Half were randomly assigned to a prenatal DHA supplement of 600 milligrams, and half were given a placebo.

Five years later, children resulting from those pregnancies were tested using the BodPod, which uses air-displacement to determine body fat and fat-free mass. The researchers found the children whose mothers took the DHA supplement during pregnancy had an average of 1.3 pounds more fat-free mass but the same amount of fat at age 5 compared with the placebo group.

“While we don’t know the mechanism for the finding, DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid. We do know that the balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids early in development can influence the balance of muscle and fat cells,” Carlson said. “The number of muscle fibers is believed to be set by term birth.”

Carlson’s co-author, John Colombo, professor of psychology and director of KU’s Life Span Institute, noted the paper makes two important contributions to the field.

“The first contribution is about the effects of DHA,” he said. “We’ve known for a long time that DHA is associated with improvements in visual, cognitive and behavioral development in early life, but these results suggest that DHA may also have a role in promoting a leaner, healthier growth outcome for children."

The second contribution is more profound, Colombo said:

"If you think about it, our results show the conditions that children experienced during the time that their mothers were pregnant with them are associated with their physical characteristics almost six years later. To me, that’s astonishing — staggering, really. Those of us working in the field of developmental science are seeing results that suggest the prenatal environment and prenatal conditions have meaningful, long-term effects on human development. Quite simply, these results add to that mounting evidence. I think we’ll learn that much more of how we ‘end up’ may be strongly influenced or determined by what happens before we are born.”

The study’s other authors are Brandon Hidaka, Jocelyn Thodosoff, Elizabeth Kerling and Holly Hull of the Department of Dietetics & Nutrition at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Carlson said the results agreed with another study undertaken in the United Kingdom, and she suggested pregnant women seeking to increase their intake of DHA wouldn’t have to look far to find good sources.

“There are currently many prenatal supplements with DHA,” she said. “They also can increase their intake of oily fish like salmon and tuna.” 

At a recent talk, Jan Bulgren referred to an editorial cartoon when she explained the need for new tools to help students and teachers grapple with higher order learning.

In the 2006 cartoon by Steve Kelley, a child approaches his mother, who is reading a newspaper that says “Iraq” across the front. 

“Mom, what’s a civil war?” the child asks.

Her answer: “A contradiction in terms.” 

“There’s so much to unpack there,” said Bulgren, who is a research professor at the Center for Research on Learning. “Think about everything that has to be discussed to have that conversation, everything that has to be defined, if you’re not going with that simple answer.”

And, there’s a lot of potential for misunderstanding.

Similarly, students and teachers need tools to help them unpack the topics they are trying to understand and achieve the higher order thinking required to make an argument, compare and contrast, and make decisions. 

A grant from the National Science Foundation that she is leading aims to help students and their teachers meet next-generation standards for learning. The project focuses on higher order thinking for middle school students and is being implemented districtwide in Santa Clara, California. The grant focuses on learning in general education STEM courses such as earth, life and physical sciences.

The grant brings together two instructional approaches to teach those subject areas. One is a set of tools called Content Enhancement Routines that will support science learning and reasoning. Routines focus on organization and understanding of information, analyzing causation, making comparisons and developing answers to critical questions, as well as argumentation, decision-making and problem-solving collaborative skills.

The second type of instructional approach the grant will fund brings instructional technology in the form of a Google App that supports cloud-based application functions. It will build on the Content Enhancement Routines developed at KU to ensure students have access to graphics, videos, models, and background knowledge. The suite of interventions will be co-designed with educators and experimentally tested. The application is being led by Jose Blackorby at CAST, a Boston-based nonprofit education research and development organization.

“What we heard from students and from teachers is that they needed new ways to explore learning and teaching in today’s world,” Bulgren said.

She noted that students at risk — including students with learning disabilities — needed different tools to achieve the new standards, including Common Core, state and national standards.

Creating a sustainable program and working with partners is a lot like building a piece of furniture from the store IKEA, says Matt Enyart, who leads the Kansas Institute for Positive Behavior Support at the Life Span Institute 

“I tell a new team when we’re implementing with them, imagine we’ve gone to IKEA and you’ve picked out something you like,” he said.  “We’ve got this box, and we’re going to open it. In this task, our job at KIPBS is to make sure the engineering is right when putting it together. Their job is to make sure it fits what their needs are. It’s critical that we build it together, but they get to decide where they put the emphasis. Everything is data-based — we’re always collecting information. We focus on democratic principles and combine them with implementation science.”

Enyart has been busy building with employees of Johnson County, Kansas, who have been integrating KIPBS tools and strategies across the county’s Department of Corrections, Mental Health Center and Developmental Supports. The KIPBS work aims “to increase both quality of life and the likelihood that youth and adults with challenging behavior related to mental health, substance use, or intellectual or developmental disability will be able to remain successfully in their home, school, work and community settings.”

Johnson County has some unique features that make it a perfect place to pilot countywide positive behavior support. In most Kansas counties, independent nonprofits administer what are known as human services, such as mental health care or assistance for people with intellectual disabilities. However, all of the core human service departments in Johnson County are centrally administered by the county government. 

“This central oversight in Johnson County makes implementation of positive behavior support possible countywide,” said Enyart, an investigator with the Beach Center on Disability. “Nowhere else is someone using positive behavior supports across mental health, corrections, substance-use disorder treatment and intellectual-disability services.”

KIPBS trains county staff to acknowledge and reward positive conduct versus being reactive or punitive, according to the KU researcher. For instance, employees in Johnson County’s Department of Corrections Therapeutic Community now are “catching” clients exhibiting good behavior and rewarding them.

This month, county staff and Enyart celebrated the collaboration of the KIPBS and Johnson County. The first 10 employees to have completed Intensive PBS Certification graduated and were honored at a ceremony that highlighted individual experiences with the program.

As one interim appointment comes to a close, another will begin for John Colombo, Life Span Institute director.  Beginning July 1, he will be interim dean of the KU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at KU.

Colombo, who has been director of the Life Span Institute since 2007, is currently finishing a two year appointment as interim director of the KU Office of Research. Simon Atkinson, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis’ vice chancellor for research, will lead the KU Office of Research as the new vice chancellor for research starting July 1.

Colombo joined KU as a research associate in 1982. In 1988, he joined the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and he has been a professor in the Department of Psychology since January 2002.

He will continue to be director of the Life Span Institute, where also leads the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, one of only 14 federally designated centers of its kind for disability research. 
- Jen Humphrey

Bar LabSometimes alcohol research conducted with human subjects happens in a  clinical setting. Picture an office with the usual trappings of desks and overhead fluorescent lighting.  But at KU, a new alcohol administration laboratory offers a setting that has more in common with the bars that hug the edge of campus and line Mass Street. 

Derek Reed, associate professor of applied behavioral science and a scientist at the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment, headed up the effort to create a bar setting in the offices of the center, which is located on the third floor of the Dole Human Development Center. The facility is equipped with taps, a beverage cooler, a dart board, signage that represents popular alcohol brands, and neon lights. 

One of the ways to get the bar to look accurate was to place liquor bottles, emptied of their contents at local establishments, on shelves behind the bar. Researchers wanted them to seem real, so the next step was to find a way to color them appropriately, using tea. 

"We steeped tea at differing durations to create amber colors for the whiskeys, rums, scotches, and tequila. We added red Gatorade to some to give it a warmer color," Reed said. "We also procured other small items that one would expect to find in a bar: napkin caddies with stirrers, rubber bar mats, various kinds of liquor/beer glasses, an 'employees only' sign on the side door that leads to the adjoining lab room, pourer spouts in the bottles, bartender tools, empty beer case boxes in the corner, and we have glasses 'chilling' in the back bar cooler."

Richard Yi, director of the laboratory, said that the lab would allow scientists to conduct research in which participants consume alcohol using safe and highly controlled methods. But to be effective, the setting couldn't look like an office, ideally. “We needed to create as realistic environment as possible," he said. 

The Cofrin Logan Center is hosting an open house and tours of the lab for the public on Friday, Sept. 13 from 3-4:40 in 3061 Dole.