By Jonathan Wexler
On September 25, the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev welcomed Dr. Ilan Dinstein to the Shaar Zion Synagogue as part of their fifth annual Kindle Your Imagination Lecture Series.
Dr. Ilan Dinstein is a member of Ben-Gurion University's Department of Psychology and the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience. He has established Israel's first major autism research center with the help of additional scientists at the university and physicians in the neighboring Soroka Medical Center. The goals of the research center are to reveal what causes different types of autism and to develop new interventions for the disorder through a better understanding of the genetics, metabolism, brain function, and behavior of one to four-year old toddlers who develop autism.
In his presentation, titled Cracking the Autism Puzzle
, Dinstein explained that he sees autism as a puzzle involving different sub-groups of people with varying symptoms, and as such, is moving away from the idea of an autism as a spectrum.
Dr. Dinstein and his dynamic team are creating a unique autism database in Israel, and are using a variety of technical methods to gather information, such as genetic testing, EEG testing, and soon, even using fMRI. Like in some other cutting edge centers around the world, they also use eye tracking and even XBOX Kinect cameras which are able to track up to three people in the room for the repetitive and restricted movements typically seen in children with autism.
The location of Ben-Gurion University, situated across the street from the Soroka Medical Center, provides an ideal site for this research. The Negev comprises 70 percent of the country's territory and is home to about one million people, mostly a heterogeneous Jewish mixture and a sizable population of 200,000 to 300,000 Bedouins.
Dr. Dinstein stressed a number of things which distinguish this Israeli effort, from the Bedouin component which provides some unique genetics in their high rate of inter-familial marriage, to the fact that most kids being tested were actually born at the same Soroka hospital where the tests are taking place. "It is a win-win situation," he said, explaining the close relationship many of the parents develop with the clinical team and stressing the wealth of maternity ward information this bring to the study. Dr. Dinstein also stressed the emphasis the lab places on the brain as oppose to behavioral testing.
"Autism is probably many different things," said Dr. Dinstein. “It is actually quite tricky to define." It was once thought that a single gene could be the cause, but now researchers are looking at a pool of 300 to 400 genes that could be involved. "Knowing about the genes would help to identify these subgroups," he added.
Dr. Dinstein identified one subgroup of children in particular. "Up to 30 percent of those with autism develop epilepsy," said Dr. Dinstein. "This is the most important project I am involved in because there are tools to deal with epilepsy."
Dr. Dinstein takes much stock in what he learns from parents whose children have autism. "Parents are doing their own clinical trials every day, everywhere in the world. We are listening to them," concluded Dr. Dinstein.
With that in mind, he hopes that some of the novel testing methods the lab is using could lead to earlier diagnosis and therefore a better chance for intervention. He listed several possible intervention methods to explore, including Cannabinoids (elements of cannabis), Hyperbaric Medicine, and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.
The Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have raised significant funds from individual donors to support Dr. Dinstein's research.
Jonathan Wexler is a Montreal area writer with extensive experience in the technical communications field.