Researchers will examine sleep and bilingualism in CART’s Pilot Grant projects

The CART Pilot Grant program, now in its 19th year, is pleased to announce it has awarded a total of $44,000 to two UCLA faculty members who will examine autism during one-year pilot studies. This year’s recipients, Dr. Carrie Bearden and Dr. Lucina Uddin, will each bring new insight into our understanding of autism by examining sleep and bilingualism (respectively) as it relates to autistic individuals. Grants awarded through the CART Pilot Grant program are intended to foster interactions and interdisciplinary research projects in the basic and clinical areas of autism as well as building upon CART’s mission and current research activities.

Carrie Bearden, PhD

“Thalamocortical disruption during sleep and wake as a biomarker for sensory sensitivity”

Dr. Bearden is a Professor, Departments of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences & Psychology and is Director of the UCLA Center for the Assessment and Prevention of Prodromal States. She joined the faculty at UCLA in 2003 and was a previous CART Pilot Grant recipient in 2008-2009 for her project looking at the neural basis of autistic spectrum disorders in 22q11.2 deletion syndrome.  

Sleep problems are highly prevalent in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), yet there is not a lot of research yet into the underlying biology and what could be done to intervene. There is increasing evidence that individuals with ASD have over-connectivity of the thalamus, the brains’ sensory relay station, with other brain regions; this overconnectivity may be associated with sleep problems, inattention and sensory sensitivity. Sleep spindles are patterns of brain waves that are generated in the thalamus and may be altered in ASD. However, the burden of traditional laboratory-based measurement of sleep spindles has led to inconsistent and limited data. In this pilot project Dr. Bearden aims to show the feasibility of using a low-burden sleep electroencepholography (EEG) headband to measure sleep spindles as a potential biomarker of sensory inhibition deficits in ASD. Specifically, she aims to identify novel biomarkers of sensory inhibition deficits in a genetically homogeneous population associated with greatly elevated risk for ASD (youth with 22q11.2 deletions). The project will adress two key goals: 1) To test her hypothesis that over-connectivity of the thalamus with the cortex is related to problems with sensory inhibition, and 2) To develop a minimally-invasive, scalable EEG measure of sleep. This project has the potential to greatly further the field of sleep research in ASD, and also to directly impact the lives of individuals with ASD and their families by providing evidence for an objective biomarker that could be practically translated to clinical practice. A biomarker for sensory inhibition deficits could identify individuals whose symptoms could improve from an intervention targeting sleep spindles and thalamocortical connectivity, such as stimulation techniques. Further, if proven feasible in this project, EEG headbands could be deployed in sleep clinics around the world as a minimally-invasive, cost-effective measure of sleep processes in individuals with sensory sensitivities, allowing for better diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders. This would increase the accessibility of high-quality sleep assessment for individuals with ASD who are unable to travel or afford assessment in a sleep clinic, such as those living in rural areas and/or from low-income backgrounds.

Lucina Uddin, PhD

"Exploring the impact of bilingualism on executive function and brain organization in children with autism”

Dr. Uddin joined the UCLA faculty in 2021 to UCLA as a professor-in-residence in the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. She also directs the Brain Connectivity and Cognition Laboratory. Dr. Uddin’s research combines analysis of structural and functional neuroimaging data to examine the organization of large-scale brain networks supporting executive functions and social cognition. Her lab investigates relationships between bilingualism, executive function, and the brain in autism, which is what she will explore through her CART Pilot Grant.  

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is associated with marked heterogeneity with respect to the development of executive function (EF) abilities. The ‘bilingual advantage’ hypothesis emerged from the observation that individuals who speak two languages fluently sometimes show greater executive function abilities than monolingual individuals. Despite the potential advantages that bilingualism may confer, clinical practitioners commonly advise against providing children with developmental disabilities a bilingual environment with the rationale that concentrating on one language will better support language development. Yet, a growing body of work suggests there are no negative effects of being raised in a bilingual environment for children with ASD. To date, there is very little cognitive neuroscience research specific to bilingualism in children with ASD. Characterizing how bilingualism in children with ASD impacts executive funcgtion ability and brain functional organization will aid clinicians in developing informed recommendations for families of children with this increasingly prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder. This project will characterize the relationship between bilingualism, executive function, and brain functional organization in verbal 9-12 year-old children for the first time using behavioral and informant-report assessments combined with state-of-the-art neuroimaging approaches. Understanding the extent to which bilingualism may bolster executive function abilities and affect brain functional organization in children with ASD is critical for informing clinician recommendations to guardians regarding how many languages to speak in the home. This work will also further our understanding of the influence of bilingualism on brain and cognitive development.