Brittany Travers examining motor, brain development in children with autism

OT student doing research with child
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COVER STORY

Travers on leading edge of research involving
motor, brain development in children with autism

Ask UW–Madison’s Brittany Travers how she became interested in studying children with autism, and she explains how a family history of Alzheimer’s disease piqued her desire to better understand the brain — and how one thinks, feels and learns.

“Then I had opportunities to work with people with autism at the opposite end of the life span,” says Travers, an assistant professor with the Department of Kinesiology’s Occupational Therapy Program. “I started to notice slight differences in the way people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) moved, and I was drawn to this atypical motion.”

Cover of Summer 2016 OT MattersShe adds: “I really just got hooked and wanted to better understand ASD and this synthesis of brain development, learning and motor skills.”

Today, Travers heads the Motor and Brain Development Lab within the university’s Waisman Center, where she is involved with more than a half-dozen research initiatives exploring various aspects of motor and brain development in children with autism. Many of these projects include collaborators from across the UW–Madison campus, and often utilize the latest brain imaging technologies.

Travers’ work is so highly regarded that in May she received a prestigious Young Investigator Award from the International Society for Autism Research.

One of the research projects Travers is working on examines whether video game-based balance training can lead to improvements in motor ability and ASD symptoms.

“I’m really intrigued by the neuroplasticity piece right now,” says Travers. Neuroplasticity describes the brain’s ability to change during the course of one’s life. Travers notes that as little as 10 years ago, many in the scientific community believed that the brain developed during a critical period in early childhood — and then remained relatively unchangeable. But more recently, researchers have shown that many aspects of the brain remain changeable — or plastic — even as one ages.

“This is very exciting,” says Travers. “We now know we can grow new neurons and that our brains are always making new connections, which make behavioral and cognitive change possible.”

Travers adds that such findings make sense to occupational therapists, who have been demonstrating for decades that such change is possible through their work with patients.

One of Travers’ current neuro-plasticity studies involves bringing children ages 6 to 17 to her lab three days per week, for six weeks. During these visits, participants train on a balance board connected to the Nintendo Wii video game system and a Kinect camera.

Travers pull-quoteTravers explains that in typically developing people, research has indicated that balance training may enhance white matter in the brain. She’s attempting to find out if such balance work with videogames might help people with their ASD symptoms.

Travers starts this study by measuring participants’ IQ, and assessing autism symptoms such as social communi¬≠cations skills and repetitive behaviors. She also tests each child’s ability to dress himself and uses the Wii to track balance and stability. At the end of the six weeks, Travers’ team repeats the assessments to calculate change and also takes brain scans to look for structural transformations in the brain. Approximately 30 participants have completed this study, but Travers and her team are still looking for more children and adolescents who might be interested in participating.

Travers stresses that while the research is promising and worth pursuing further, no video game or other balance training has yet been rigorously shown to improve autism symptoms.

A sampling of additional projects Travers is involved with include:

Imaging the Brainstem in Autism

In April, Travers received a Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award for a project that will utilize MRI scans produced by UW–Madison imaging experts Andrew L. Alexander, Beth Meyerand and Brendon Nacewicz. The researchers hope to find correlations between MRI brainstem measures, and motor and behavioral assessments, to better understand the role of the brainstem in autism.

Learning and Decision Making in Autism and Typical Development

Also in 2016, Travers and Ari Rosenberg from the UW School of Medicine and Public Health received funding from the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research for a project that will utilize MRI scans, computer assessments and computer game play to assess differences in learning profiles among individuals with autism and with typical development.

Mobile Device Use in OT Clinical Practice

Travers and Debbie Bebeau, a clinical instructor and fieldwork coordinator with UW–Madison’s OT Program, are conducting a survey study to establish how professionals in the occupational therapy field utilize tablets and other mobile devices in clinical practice. (To take the survey, visit: https://kinesiology.education.wisc.edu/ot/about)

Travers says that while much of her research is in its early stages, it’s her long-term goal to find interventions that occupational therapists can use in their work to help people with ASD.

“People with autism have so many gifts that are underutilized in our society,” says Travers. “My goal is to find neuroscience-based, therapeutic interventions that can help people with autism reach their full potential.”
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