Dr. Sara Jane Webb, University of Washington

Dr. Sara Jane Webb is a Research Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington and a Research Affiliate for the Center on Human Development and Disability. In November of 2010, Emily Hotez, an intern at the Autism Science Foundation, interviewed Dr. Webb about her role at the CHDD and the critical scientific research currently being conducted on autism spectrum disorders.

How was your career changed from when you received a grant from NAAR as a mentee to when you received a similar grant from ASF as a mentor? What did that initial grant do for your career?

S.W. I got a grant from the National Alliance for Autism Research as one of the first independent scientist awards. I had just begun to work in autism at that time and had been working on projects with my mentor, Geraldine Dawson. The opportunity to work with NAAR as an early career independent investigator award was a career-changing event for me. It gave me a chance to start my own line of inquiry and to take the science in a direction that I thought was important. It has been about 5 years, which isn’t a very long time in science, but I’ve added about 10 grant projects dedicated to understanding autism. This has allowed me to expand my ability to mentor and to teach others students and to bring people into the field the way Geraldine Dawson brought me in. Hopefully we’ve contributed some strong scientific ideas as well as to help establish some promising lines of research.

How has the field changed over time?

S.W. My perspective and my history in the field are not very long. I’ve only been working in autism for the last 9 years. I think the real change we’ve seen has been in the interdisciplinary collaborations. For example, having clinicians and geneticists sitting at the same table and designing studies together – answering important questions that have not only moved science forward but has helped bring scientific knowledge to families who are affected by autism. We have seen interdisciplinary collaborations between neuroimagers, clinicians, developmental psychologists, geneticists, psychiatrists, molecular biologists and more. Bringing more people into the field with a perspectives on genetics can impact our understanding of the way the brain develops, knowledge of brain development can then impact the way we think about treatment, studies of the effectiveness of treatment can change public policy — this is the promise for the future. I think that interdisciplinary collaboration has brought a true change to the field for the better.

How can studying how children process faces be used to research autism spectrum disorders?

S.W. We know that face processing or understanding how the face displays information is a key component of social processing. When you are communicating with someone, you can communicate by using your words. You can also communicate nonverbally by changing your facial expression, your eye movements. Those things often go together. How expressions go along with words can tell if you if somebody is happy or if they are being sarcastic. The way the lips move can help you better determine what words are actually being said and can provide context to our communicative interactions. So we think being able to efficiently and automatically take in information from the face is a key basic skill. There is also a well-known trajectory of how infants begin to use faces and how that knowledge develops across the first years of life and into childhood. So, by looking at this fundamental skill, we can work with children with autism and identify which parts of this system may be working atypically, which parts may be delayed and which are functioning typically. We can then target that basic skill or even use it as a marker for other skills that might be more difficult to measure.

What specifically methodologies are you using to study these processes in individuals with autism?

S.W. We use different methodologies depending on what our question is. Right now, my lab primarily use event-related potentials, which is a way of recording signals from the brain and measurements of behavior. Event-related potentials or EEG are measurements of brain activity obtained by placing tiny sensors on top of a participant’s heads—it looks like you are wearing a wired-up hat. The best thing about this methodology is that we can use it across the lifespan. Karen Burner, who received the predoctoral fellowship from the Autism Science Foundation, is using this methodology with 6 and 12-month infants who are at-risk for developing autism. We can do the same type of study with infants as we can with parents or children with autism. We can then look at the way the brain processes information based on the risk for autism, whether or not you have autism, or whether you might be genetically related to a person with autism.

My understanding of facial recognition is that research has shown that the way we process faces is different than how we would process other visual images. How do these processes manifest differently in people with autism?

S.W. We know that early in development the face system but not the object system is already slightly delayed in children with autism and the delay that we are seeing in the toddlers with autism is similar to what we are seeing in the delay in their other social skills. So we think that looking at face processing is a very clear way that we can tap into what is going on in terms of social understanding and social processing.

What is the value of all of the face processing work for people with autism? Is it to provide intervention or treatment?

S.W. The work that has been done has been to better understand why individuals with autism have difficulties with this domain and why social processing seems to be a lifelong struggle. Face processing has been a way to look at the brain systems that are involved in social processing and quantify the skills that are needed for individuals in order to be able to do social processing efficiently. Our more recent work has begun to look at ways for us to intervene specifically with face processing. Susan Faja and I have done a study where we worked with adults who had problems with face processing and provided them computerized face training. The goal is to take this one skill and help it to develop in a more typical way. This gives us information about how plastic – or responsive to training — the brain is in autism and whether or not changing basic skills can foster more significant changes in social skills. We have also used face processing as a general way to look at how young children are responding to behavioral interventions — looking at how face processing changes during the Early Start Denver Model intervention and whether or not face processing responds to treatment in a manner similar to other skills.

Are there specific biomarkers in face processing for diagnosis?

S.W. No, there are neural markers of face processing such as the timing or amount of activation of the face system but you don’t have to have a problem with face processing in order to get a diagnosis of autism. It’s not part of the clinical diagnosis process but many individuals with autism do have difficulty with attending to other people and using eye contact. In that way, it is implicitly used as part of the diagnostic phenotype. We have seen some individuals with autism who have a really great ability to remember faces, but by probing more deeply into the skill, we find that sometimes its done in unusual ways, such as focusing on how someone’s ears look or hair color, instead of looking at the whole face.

Would all individuals with autism experience the same difficulties in face recognition despite the variety of autism spectrum disorders?

S.W. I think that many individuals experience difficulty with using facial information in real time. In some recent work we have done with high functioning adults with autism, we find a significant minority of our sample don’t show deficits on standardized tests of face memory. But individuals in that study self-reported difficulty with faces in the real world, such as difficulty integrating information when the face moves or when someone is talking. Looking across the whole range of processing can be very important and we may find that individuals will have different processing strengths and weaknesses.

Can you discuss your study on memory impairment in conjunction with face processing?

S.W. In toddlers with autism, we found that simply learning about new faces is difficult and takes more time that it does in children with either developmental delays or children with neurotypical development. Toddlers with autism were willing to look at faces but it took them a lot longer to gather the information that they needed to fully process and form a memory for the face.

Can you elaborate on the research you did with savants? What is the importance of this research?

S.W. In autism there are areas where individuals have a lot of difficulty and there are areas where individuals have phenomenal strengths. When you see an individual who has an ability that far exceeds what you would expect given some of their other skills — how does this come about, how does the skill develop, what parts of the brain is involved? Greg Wallace and I have done a quick study to look at all of the individuals who participated in the CPEA and the STAART NIH-sponsored studies, comparing individuals with autism with exceptional skills and those individuals without extraordinary abilities. Those individuals who had exceptional skills tended to have a higher IQ and had more repetitive behaviors and restricted interest behaviors. Possibly having focused repetitive behaviors and more restricted interest allows you to focus in and develop one area and at other areas of development fall behind.

Can you describe how you are researching neural circuits and atypical development in Fragile X syndrome?

S.W. I have a small study looking at how individuals with autism and Fragile X, who are similar in their cognitive functioning, use eye gaze and facial information during information processing tasks. Some people have proposed that individuals with autism may be highly socially anxious and others have proposed that some of the social difficulties are due to social disinterest or withdrawal. Fragile X syndrome is a single gene disorder that causes intellectually disability and autism behaviors. Individuals with Fragile X also don’t look you in the eye, use facial information in an atypical way and have increased anxiety. Our goal in the study is to compare how the brain responds to faces in these two groups of individuals.

What are the major challenges of your research? What are the major benefits?

S.W. I think the major challenge for anyone who does work in the basic sciences is to make their research relevant to the every day lives of individuals with autism or to figure out how it can be transferred in a meaningful way to clinical practice. I think our short term and long term goals are to transfer understanding from this basic science perspective to treatment at a more rapid pace.

What is the significance of autism research to you?

S.W. It is in that applied aspect. Families of individuals with autism have expressed a significant need and desire for improvement in the understanding of the causes of autism and the development of effective evidence based treatments. I believe that the work that we do advances the general understanding of the way in which the brain works and can contribute to this. But we also need to work to make things better for individuals with autism, for their self-development, for their families, and for the community.

What are you own personal research goals for the future?

S.W. As part of our work with the Autism Science Foundation, we are working to better understanding the early signs for autism and the way in which temperament and personality play a role as either a protective or risk factor. We are also working to better understand who responds to treatment and how the attention system may be fundamental to achieving positive social and language outcomes. I am looking toward a future in which we have more dialog between basic scientists and clinical care.