Research Projects

Ongoing Studies

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The Brainy Movement Study for Kids

  • The Motor and Brain Development Lab at the Waisman Center is recruiting children 6-9 years old with autism OR with typical development for a research study that looks at the brainstem and corresponding behaviors in children with autism and typical development.
    • Children will complete 6-7 hours of behavioral tasks and a 1-hour magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan. The behavioral tasks will include a brief IQ assessment and various sensory and motor assessments (asking your child to do activities like drawing, playing with balls, hopping, touching or grasping objects, sorting objects, doing sit ups, and balancing). These activities can be completed in one visit or across multiple study visits, depending on the preference of the family.
    • During the study visit, a parent/caregiver will answer questions about the child in the form of questionnaires and an interview.
    • Families will be compensated $50/ MRI scan and $10/hour for their participation. Meals during testing will be reimbursed at the UW per diem rate. Sibling childcare is available upon request.
    • All sessions will be completed at the Waisman Center. To offset transportation costs to and from the study, participants will receive up to $250 depending on the amount of travel required.
    • For families outside of the Madison and surrounding areas, a one-night stay at a hotel will be offered.

Motor Learning and Brain Changes in Autism

  • The Motor and Brain Development Lab at the Waisman Center is recruiting high-functioning adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder or with typical development (13-17 years old) from the Madison, WI area for a research study that looks at brain and behavior changes after learning skills from playing video games.
  • Participants will complete a 1.5-2.5 hour intake assessment and a 1-hour MRI brain scan, while parents answer questions about their child. The intake assessment will include an abbreviated IQ assessment, an autism diagnostic assessment (asking questions and doing activities with books and pictures) (participants with ASD only), and a standardized motor assessment (asking your child to do activities like drawing, playing with balls, hopping, sorting objects, doing sit ups, and balancing).
  • Then, participants will come to the Waisman Center for six weeks to play Wii and Kinect video games.
  • After the six weeks, participants will complete a 1-hour end-of-study assessment and another 1-hour MRI brain scan.
  • Families will be compensated $50/ MRI scan and $10/hour for their participation (up to $315).

Previous Studies

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Computer Learning Games

  • The purpose of this study was to understand multi-session learning, decision making, and corresponding neurobiology in ASD. Using space-themed computer games, we examined how learning occurs in ASD over weeks of training. A subset of participants also underwent MRI brain imaging. Our long-term vision is to find ways to identify and assess individual learning profiles that could be used to determine personalized educational plans to accelerate learning for individuals with ASD. This is a collaborative project between Dr. Ari Rosenberg and Dr. Brittany Travers.

Robotically-Guided Motor Training

  • The purpose of this study was to explore how children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and children with typical development complete drawing motor tasks with a robot under more-or-less challenging conditions. We are interested in the robot’s potential to detect motor challenges in ASD. The robot tracked exact movements of participants, and the motion tracking camera detects joint angles and kinematics of body movements. Our long-term vision is to develop a robotically-guided motor skills assessment that will evaluate a person’s motor strengths and weaknesses. From this, we hope to develop a therapy paradigm (robotically-guided motor training) for individuals with ASD that can be individualized to their motor needs. This is a collaborative project with Dr. Andrea Mason, Dr. Michael Zinn, and Dr. Brittany Travers.

Beyond the Cerebrum: Multimodal Imaging of the Brainstem in Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • The brainstem is an underexplored area of the brain in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that may be intimately related to ASD symptom severity. The purpose of this study was to characterize the brainstem and corresponding behaviors in children with ASD and related disorders. We used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to better understand the structure and function of this brain area. Behavioral assessments examine motor performance, sensory symptoms, and other core autism symptoms within the group. Our long-term vision is to better understand this brain region in order to understand the biological basis of ASD symptoms.

Video Game Motor Learning and Brain Changes in Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Motor challenges are commonly reported in persons with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, it is unclear how individuals with ASD learn motor skills and whether or not motor learning can change the structure and function of the brain in ASD. Using our ninja-training video game, participants completed 6 weeks of training. In a subset of participants, pre-post brain imaging was performed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Our long-term vision is to develop fun and motivating ways to alleviate motor challenges in ASD. Further, we hope to better understand neuroplasticity (how the brain changes as a function of experiences) in ASD.

Imaging of the Brainstem in Autism

  • The purpose of this project is to characterize the brainstem and surrounding cerebrum in individuals with ASD and autism-related disorders beyond the behaviorally defined diagnostic categories using state-of-the-art, multimodal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and corresponding assessments of symptom severity. We also aim to determine biologically meaningful subgroups based on the multimodal MRI techniques and behavioral correlates, and test if the biology-based subgroups better predict symptom severity than traditional behavior-based diagnostic classifications. Children ages 6-10 participate in behavioral testing, motor assessments, go/no-go computer task, and an MRI scan in this study.

Learning and Decision Making in Autism and Typical Development

  • The Computer Learning Games Study was created to assess individual differences in learning profiles among individuals with autism and with typical development and the neural computations for the observed learning differences. We also were testing decision making differences among these groups. Participants ages 13-17 with ASD or typical development completed 11 sessions of learning-based and decision-making computer games. Task performance on both computer games will be used to guide our modeling in order to infer individual differences in neural circuits and physiological pathways that are altered in ASD. Additionally, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to explore neurophysiological correlates of learning and ASD symptomatology in a subgroup of study participants.

Study of Daily Motor Tasks

  • The objective of the Study of Daily Motor Tasks was to examine the motor properties of balance and grip strength tasks in adults with typical development. We wanted to learn how a range of motor tasks are done in typically developing adults, and to better understand balance, strength, kinematics, and postural stability needed to accomplish daily tasks in healthy adults. We would like to use this data as a contrast to better understand the underlying kinematics and postural stability of children with autism.