Have you ever walked down the hall and passed a colleague or friend, given a smile and said “hello,” only to have the person keep walking and say nothing?
Immediately, you begin to think: Did I do something? Are they mad at me? Did they just not notice me? Were they thinking of something else and didn’t hear me?
|Rajesh Kana, Ph.D., talks with Heather Wadsworth (right) and Charles Wells (left) about their research on autism. Wadsworth recently was awarded a $10,000 grant.
“Mindreading is something we as human beings do every day,” says Rajesh Kana, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology. “We’re constantly trying to figure out what other people are thinking, based on their body language and their actions. People with autism have trouble developing those thoughts and interpreting their actions.”
Kana and graduate student Heather Wadsworth will be studying how autism affects the ability to imitate and understand others in research funded by a new grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Network Intellectual and Developmental Disability Research Center (IDDRC) at UAB. The center is one in a national network of 21 research centers with funding from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to support projects relevant to intellectual disabilities. The IDDRC at UAB awards grants to graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and junior faculty members for pilot studies aimed at advancing the understanding of intellectual and developmental disabilities, ultimately leading to new diagnostics and treatments. Wadsworth, along with Kana, her mentor, were awarded the $10,000 inaugural grant to conduct a pilot study.
Under Kana’s direction, Wadsworth will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to learn about the impairments in neural circuitry underlying social skills in autism, then design a three- to six-month intervention and training program. Finally, they will examine the effect of training on improving the faulty brain circuitry. Children ages 10 to 15 will perform tasks involving imitation as part of the project, and Wadsworth will observe how their brains react. The goal is for the research to lead to new neurobiologically informed training programs for children with autism.
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to do this research because we’re looking at imitation in a way that hasn’t been studied before,” says Wadsworth, who is pursuing her doctorate in the medical/clinical psychology program.
Playing the role of mentor
Kana arrived at UAB from Carnegie-Mellon University in August 2007, and Wasdworth began working in his lab soon thereafter.
Wadsworth became interested in studying autism after a job hunt as an undergraduate in psychology. She found employment at a local residential treatment facility helping a young man with autism. The more Wadsworth learned about the gentleman and autism the more fascinated she became.
“I became so interested I started doing research on autism, and things sort of took off from there,” she says.
She wanted to learn more about imaging and the role it could play in autism research and connected with Kana, who has been researching the disorder for more than 10 years. Kana says he was impressed with Wadsworth from the beginning, calling her an intelligent and dedicated student. He jumped at the opportunity to mentor her.
“She had clinical and a research background, which I thought made her a good candidate to be a promising researcher in the field of autism,” Kana says.
“One of the best things about being a mentor is the direction you’re able to provide and the opportunities to brainstorm ideas. I can help Heather in her research on brain functioning and provide her the facilities she needs.”
Kana assisted Wadsworth in writing the grant application. They generated the idea for the research and refined the scope on a few different occasions before submitting the proposal.
“I really think we crafted a good project, one that’s working well for both of us,” Kana says. “I can do the projects I’m interested in working on with her help, and she gets to use and learn these new techniques that I know.”
Wadsworth says she’s fortunate to do her research work with Kana and appreciates the opportunity this research work will provide her.
“This is my first grant for research and Dr. Kana has been extremely valuable in all aspects,” Wadsworth says. “I know that I can seek his advice and get help on anything. And it’s great for me because I really want to do both treatment and research of autism after I graduate.”
Rajesh Kana named Distinguished Scientist
UAB researcher Rajesh Kana, Ph.D., has been awarded the Chesapeake Civitan McNulty Distinguished Scientist Award. The Scientist Award is presented annually in honor of the McNulty family.
Kana is an assistant professor in the UAB Department of Psychology and is principal investigator in the Autism Brain Imaging Research Laboratory, which is housed in the Civitan International Research Center. The award honors Kana for his research in neuroscience, cognition, neuroimaging and autism.
His current research involves the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging to study brain function in people with autism.The research could lead to future interventions and treatments, he said.
Kana also has written and co-authored several articles in peer-reviewed journals in the field of neuroscience.
Kana earned his doctorate in 2003 from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. He completed his post-doctoral training in 2007 at Carnegie Mellon University.