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Motor and Brain Development Lab studies motor skills to understand autismThe Badger Herald

Editor’s Note: The Lab Report is a weekly series in the print edition of the Badger Herald where we delve deeply into the (research) lives of students and faculty outside of the classroom.

The University of Wisconsin Travers Lab is using its study of motor skills to bridge the gap between the neuroscience of autism spectrum disorders and the life skills they affect.

Principal investigator Brittany Travers is particularly interested in the underlying motor differences she has observed through learning paradigms, such as typing and folding in people with autism.

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“We think of motor skills as the link between tasks of daily living and a better understanding of the neuroscience of autism and other conditions,” Travers said. “We so often take for granted our ability to move our bodies in ways that allow us to respond and interact with the world around us.”

The lab studies motor function, cognition and life skills in people with autism spectrum disorders through an interdisciplinary combination of neuroimaging techniques and quantitative measurements.

“We’re thinking about what motor differences can tell us about what might be going on in the brain and the impact of motor skills on our ability to perform daily living tasks,” Travers said.

Undergraduate researcher Michelle Alder, a senior neurobiology student on the premedical path, found her way to Travers’ lab after pursuing a more refined research experience that suited her interests in both movement and the brain.

“It’s the intersection between psychology, occupational therapy and the brain. They don’t overlook any aspect, it’s very holistic, ”said Alder. “When you look for results, you are looking at how it is in the brain, how it presents itself physically, and how it relates to improving the daily lives of people with autism who may have it. need ? “

Alder’s research experience in Travers’ lab culminated with his recent Hilldale Fellowship, giving him a new sense of independence and investment in the lab.

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The scholarship provides a unique opportunity to have their own independent project and to connect with other students while making a significant contribution to the lab’s work, she said. Her project integrates data collected in the laboratory with a meta-analysis of the existing literature, which she can see the implications of firsthand.

Alder has worked with two boys with autism in respite care for about a year and a half. She said getting to know the two boys broadened her understanding of autism both on an interpersonal and neurological level.

“Reading the literature and the results that I look at, I can just see in the children that I work with how these results might apply to them,” Alder said.

Travers is also excited about the state of their research and how it can translate into meaningful behavioral interventions for people with autism.

“We have work that suggests that intensive balance training can impact the brain and motor skills,” Alder said. “We’re excited to reflect on how intensive behavioral interventions – we call it our biofeedback-based video game intervention – and motivational interventions like this may be able to change the entire brain network. “

Travers likened the process of developing a research project to a Venn diagram, with the ideal research project at the intersection of student interests, pressing issues in the literature, and an achievable timeline.

Among the researchers’ suggestions that motor functions and the ability to move are the result of the evolution of the human brain, the Travers lab is heavily focused on studying the brainstem, an area of ​​early brain development devoid of perspectives of neuroimaging, Travers said.

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“It opened doors for us to explore this uncharted territory of the brainstem and better understand all of its functions and how it could lead to motor and behavioral differences,” Travers said.

Alder has acquired a multitude of skills through the research process, she said, both developing her independent project, executing data collection and evaluating the scientific literature.

Her mentor played a huge role in guiding her while giving her a sense of empowerment.

Whether it’s skills as fundamental as learning to code using an R program or finding and reviewing reliable literature, Alder believes her lab experience has equipped her with the tools to to succeed.

“This lab is really good at critically analyzing the literature we read, thinking about their choices in their method and how they apply those results to the daily lives of people with autism,” she said.

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