Q&A with psychological and brain sciences professor Caroline Robertson
Caroline Robertson joined the Dartmouth faculty in July as an assistant professor in the psychological and brain sciences department. Working as a postdoctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Robertson was the lead author of a study which gained national attention as it found a link between the neurotransmitter GABA and autism. Robertson is serving as the principal investigator on the Dartmouth Autism Research Initiative, which seeks to understand the biomedical causes of autism and develop assistive care.
What is your current project at Dartmouth?
CR: We are an autism research group. We just moved to Dartmouth in July, and our goal is to build an autism research program on campus. Currently there are a lot of people with autism who come through Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center to the psychiatry clinics, but there isn’t much human-level autism research at all coordinated on campus. There’s a lot of interest in autism in the community, a lot of different service providers that work with people with autism and after-school programs and things like this, but right now there’s no centralized hub of those efforts. This is an exciting time to be bringing a research group here because we can be that hub. So what we’re doing is basic neuroscience psychology research for people with autism. We ask questions that are trying to understand what’s different about the autistic brain, how they understand the world around them and what is different in their brain as they’re looking at different stimuli like images, listening to sounds or language. Another prong of what we do outside of research is trying to be a useful resource to help coordinate the efforts in Hanover, trying to do sensory-based community activities in the Upper Valley. We’re helping to coordinate sensory-friendly movie screenings and science communication talks and things like that to generally bring together autism awareness.
Can you briefly describe your background and how you got into this field?
CR: I’m a neuroscience researcher and my PhD is in autism research. What interests me about it is probably what interests most people: that it’s a very common condition, but we know very little about it. I came to it as an undergrad and I found that I really had a passion for understanding the brain but really wanted my research to have significant clinical impact, so I wanted to focus on a condition where I felt there was a lot left to know about and autism drew my attention.
What does outreach for your program look like?
CR: When we first came to campus, my goal was just to identify the different people in the Upper Valley community who were already doing work with individuals with autism or around autism awareness and learn from them what’s needed in the community at this point. I knew we wanted to have some sort of community outreach side to the work, but I wanted to know what particularly we could fill. I talked to everyone from the people who run the Nugget Theater to psychiatrists at the hospital. Recruitment-wise, we’ve mostly been working through social media and our website. I think down the road we’ll start doing things like putting up fliers in different community centers.
What will be involved in the studies you design? How and why are you blending techniques of neuroscience and visual reality technology?
CR: A lot of our work focuses on understanding sensory perception in people with autism and how they view the world. We do that because people with autism often report advantages and talents in sensory domains, but many also struggle with sensory filtering. Understanding that part of autism has been a large focus in our lab because it’s something you can measure really well objectively. We use techniques like eye-tracking, watching how someone moves their eyes and allocates their attention in order to tell which details they process and pick up on, and we do that usually in virtually reality settings with headsets. I track people while they’re looking around a natural environment to try to understand how they filter visual information and focus in on different sensory details. We can give them sounds and measure how they process the natural world. Later, we can bring them to the fMRI machine and see which parts of the brain are different when people are noticing certain details or filtering certain parts of the environment. What’s cool about this is vision is something we really understand a lot in terms of neuroscience. When you pick up something that’s different in autism in the sensory domain, you can really start to get a handle on the neurobiological underpinnings of that because we have a good template of how vision works in the normal brain. We can model and understand well deviations.
What will you discuss at your upcoming public lecture, “Autism: A View from Neuroscience”? Why did you decide to do this event?
CR: It’s part of the outreach side of the autism research initiative,. I really feel that, in the autism field, there is very little communication between the scientists who try to understand the condition but don’t communicate back to those who have the condition, or parents and educators, about the significance of our work. I think that leads to a lot of miscommunication in the scientific world and to the general public, and is something scientists need to take on really seriously. We will try to have regular public lectures, speaking to a general audience about what we’re learning about in the brain, open the dialogue for what science can bring to understanding autism.
What is one thing everyone should know about autism?
CR: There’s a phrase in the autism community, which is “nothing about me without me.” It’s a really nice sentiment — we shouldn’t be designing studies about people without incorporating those people, their ideas and their opinions and perspectives, into our design and also giving the research back to them. That phrase has really inspired me in starting my own lab and is something I’m really thinking a lot about now. We’re making sure that our research is aimed at questions that would have impact of people’s day-to-day lives, designed with the input of the people that this research is meant to benefit.