The Pivot: Researcher Gabriel Dichter Focuses on Autism
Date Published: April 9, 2021
We are celebrating SPARK’s fifth anniversary with stories about the first participants and researchers who joined.
Fortunately for autism research, Gabriel Dichter met Elaine Coonrod. They were studying for doctoral degrees in clinical psychology at Vanderbilt University. Dichter was interested in mood disorders, when Coonrod told him about her work with children who have autism. Dichter became fascinated by those children and their dedicated families. He even went with Coonrod to conferences on child development, Coonrod recalls.
Before long, Dichter’s focus became autism. “I really pivoted my career,” he says.
The couple married in 2002. They graduated and continued their work and research on autism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Dichter is now co-principal investigator for the SPARK autism research study at UNC’s Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD).
UNC joined with SPARK more than five years ago, becoming a pilot site for the study before it even launched. Dichter first learned about SPARK from CIDD Director Joseph Piven, M.D. SPARK was planning to enroll 50,000 people with autism, and their families, to help uncover genes that are linked to the condition. SPARK also planned to connect those participants with scientists who are conducting other autism studies.
Dichter realized that a study of SPARK’s size would make it easier for researchers to find participants for their studies – and answers to all types of questions. Why does autism affect people in different ways? Are there different types of autism? If we knew what type of autism a person has, could we find the right therapies and treatments for their symptoms?
“What’s so exciting about SPARK, and why we wanted to be involved from the very beginning, is that by helping to unpack and understand the genetics of autism, SPARK will discover the different causes of autism in different people. This inevitably will be a path toward real progress in understanding how to develop personalized autism interventions,” he says.
As more genes are discovered that are linked to autism, he explains, researchers can find treatments that work best for people who have changes to those particular genes.
Since UNC signed up with SPARK, it has been joined by more than 30 medical schools and autism research centers across the United States. Called clinical sites, these centers register new participants and help them provide saliva samples for DNA analysis. Almost 100,000 children and adults with autism have joined SPARK, along with many of their parents and siblings. UNC has registered about 1,000 people with autism, and both of their parents.
Scientists from SPARK sites share information during meetings with each other, says Dichter, a professor of psychiatry, psychology, and neuroscience, at UNC. “It’s amazing to see how collaboration can accelerate autism research.”
Math, Science, and Music
Dichter grew up in a musical household. His parents are Misha and Cipa Dichter, renowned concert pianists who have performed in the United States and abroad. They taught their son to appreciate classical music and encouraged him to play an instrument, the flute. But they did not push him to become a musician. “I always enjoyed science and math growing up and think that there is a natural overlap between patterns in music and working with numbers,” Gabriel Dichter says.
As a scientist, Dichter is interested in how the brain works in autism. He has published dozens of research papers and book chapters.
He has worked on studies that used two types of scans for brain research in autism: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).1 He has also studied the use of eye tracking to predict how well a social skills intervention works in people on the spectrum.2 With eye tracking, researchers examine where a person is looking, which helps to measure interest and attention to different activities, people, and things.
Does this Autism Treatment Work?
Using scans or eye tracking can help researchers see if a treatment works. “One of the challenges in autism research is that we lack objective indicators of when a treatment is helpful,” he explains. For example, to see if a social skills intervention works, researchers may give parents a questionnaire that asks about any changes in the child’s behaviors and symptoms. Survey answers can be subjective and rely on other factors. What if an intervention produces small changes that are not noticed right away?
“Maybe the effects of that treatment would first be seen in the brain with a scan like the fMRI,” Dichter says. By using scans, researchers may prevent a new treatment from being judged as ineffective and abandoned too quickly. They also may be able to speed up development of new treatments, he says. Instead of enrolling hundreds of people in an intervention, and measuring their progress using parent surveys, researchers could test the treatment on 10 or 20 people and use fMRI scans to look for changes in how their brain functions. These changes “might not yet be detectable in a person’s behavior or symptoms,” he says.
Mood Disorders and Autism
Dichter may have changed his focus to autism years ago, but he did not ignore his first interest in mood disorders, such as depression. In fact, he has been involved in depression studies and has used concepts from depression research to look at autism.
For example, researchers studying depression have examined the pathways in the brain that govern a person’s motivation. Dichter is interested in social motivation in autism. Youngsters learn about their world through social experiences, he explains. Children with autism often are less motivated to seek out those interactions. And “that may actually influence the trajectory of the development of brain systems that are critical for social interaction, communication and cognition,” he says.
In addition to his duties with SPARK, he is research director of CIDD, which provides evaluations and clinical services to people with developmental conditions. His wife, Elaine Coonrod, directed the Chapel Hill TEACCH Center, which provides autism services for children and adults. She left that position after their second child was born.
Dichter is hopeful about the future of autism research. “SPARK has given me a deep sense that incredible discoveries are coming in the next five to 10 years, largely due to this resource that SPARK has created and due to the contributions of families in SPARK,” he says.
Photo courtesy of Gabriel Dichter.
- Visit SPARK to learn about the study and to see a list of clinical sites.
- To learn more about autism brain research at UNC, watch this SPARK webinar by Joseph Piven, M.D.