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Wang earns prestigious NSF CAREER Award to expand research on early warning signs of autism spectrum disorder

A girl looks at a picture of a boy on the beach

People preferentially orient to faces in their environment, this behavior is defined as social attention. The research team led by Assistant Professor Shuo Wang aims to uncover the neural mechanisms underlying this behavior using state of the art single neuron recordings in humans.  

MORGANTOWN, W.Va.—

Humans are naturally social creatures. As infants we intensely look at the faces of our parent or caregiver not only to memorize what they look like, but to connect the face with the voice.

This social visual attention is critical to the early development of language and communication skills and also influences thoughts, decisions, memory and actions.

According to West Virginia University Assistant Professor Shuo Wang, social visual attention plays a vital role in guiding social behaviors and impaired social attention underlies many psychiatric and neurological disorders, such as autism and ADHD.

However, Wang explained that very little is known about human visual attention at the single-neuron level.

Recently, Wang earned the prestigious CAREER award from the National Science Foundation in support of his research to understand the underlying neural processes involved in human social interaction. The award comes with nearly $500,000 in funding over a five-year period.

“Understanding the brain mechanisms involved in social attention is critical to unraveling the early signs of autism spectrum disorder,” Wang said.

This project builds on Wang’s single-neuron recordings with simultaneous eye tracking in humans as well as his approaches to analyze functional connectivity at the neural circuit level.

“The brain contains billions of neurons. With our unique technique, we are able to probe the activity of a single neuron out of all brain neurons,” Wang said. “Neuroscientists try to understand the brain at the activity level of a single neuron making single-neuron recording the gold standard in neuroscience.”

This research will be one of the very first studies to investigate the neural circuits of human social interaction for both goal-driven and stimulus-driven attention.

“The outcomes of this research are important to understand the neural mechanisms of impaired visual attention in patients with psychiatric and neurological disorders and will be informative for development of future targeted intervention strategies,” said Wang.

As part of the project, Wang and colleagues will have an opportunity to collaborate with neurosurgeons and record from neurons in specific brain regions directly known to be involved in attention, decision-making, or processing of socially relevant images while the patients perform various attention tasks.

The first attention task is a search task prompting the patient to seek an object among distractions, similar to how we look for our keys in a cluttered room.

The other prompts the patient to freely view images of natural scenery without any restrictions, similar to how we explore an environment when we go to a new place. Wherever the patient looks indicates where they pay attention.

“These results will contribute to our understanding of biological processes of visual attention and also contribute to the refinement of teaching materials for those with attention disorders,” Wang said.

The data acquired, and tools developed as a result of this research will be made available to other researchers in order to continue the advancement of cognitive neuroscience research and human neural recordings.

The NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, program supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of their mission organizations.

"Dr. Wang’s research lies at the unique intersection between biomedical engineering and human neuroscience,” said Richard Turton, Chemical Engineering Chair and Russell and Ruth Bolton Professorship for Outstanding Teaching. “His lab exploits the rare opportunities provided by intracranial electrical recordings during neurosurgical procedures. His research is truly at the cutting edge of biomedical engineering and we are proud to have him as a member of our faculty."


-WVU-

rad/05/14/20

Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

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