The USC Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy and the university’s Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute (ZNI) co-hosted Mark T. Wallace, director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute, at a Jan. 13 seminar focusing on his most recent research on sensory and multisensory integration in autism.
“There is a constant interaction taking place between the senses,” Wallace began his lecture, explaining, for example, how “what we see influences what we taste.”
His presentation on the Health Sciences campus led the audience of faculty and students through examples to illustrate the phenomena of sensory processing and recent research in the field. At one juncture, he even enlisted the audience as “experimental subjects” to demonstrate his points.
Wallace’s original research at Vanderbilt University focused on the development of sensory processing, particularly the development and plasticity of multisensory processing systems. While his laboratory initially used neurophysiological approaches to research these systems in animal subjects, as the results progressed, he recognized a need to translate his research into more practical uses.
“Because of the large population of children with autism spectrum disorder in the community around Vanderbilt, it was a natural place to move and begin this research.”
Since receiving his appointment at the institute, Wallace and a team of researchers have started delving into the complex domain of autism etiology. Specifically, they are examining an individual’s multisensory temporal binding window, which in essence is the perception of two separate stimuli occurring together.
“The most interesting piece of research he showed was that this temporal binding window can be impacted by simple feedback – did they respond correctly or not,” said Barbara Thompson, assistant professor in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. “This impact is not only durable but generalizable to other settings and stimuli.”
The lecture was the latest example of concerted collaboration between the ZNI and the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, which aims to bridge the gap between basic neuroscience research and applications to therapeutic practices for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
When Erna Blanche, associate professor of clinical occupational therapy, asked Wallace about the relationship between his research on multisensory stimulation and potential applications to clinical approaches to children with neurodevelopmental disabilities who have difficulty making eye contact with other people, Wallace responded with a chuckle, “That’s for you to figure out.”
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