More than a decade ago, preeminent autism researcher Kevin Pelphrey was an early career scientist conducting imaging studies on the development of the brain, specifically the “social brain” that governs facial recognition, eye gaze and other functions.
Back then Dr. Pelphrey’s work at Duke University only touched on the growing research on autism, which is defined by deficits of social function. But his work focus changed after doctors diagnosed his 3-year-old daughter with autism.
Dr. Pelphrey’s intellectual interest became a passion.
He realized that he had an opportunity to conduct critical research that could positively affect the 1 in 68 children in the United States diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder—including his daughter.
“Before, I was intellectually interested in helping people, but I never imagined that I could see treatments that will benefit my child in my lifetime,” Dr. Pelphrey said. “It does give me drive.”
Now Dr. Pelphrey will bring his expertise and connections developed as a leading autism researcher to George Washington University as the inaugural director of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute (AND Institute). He begins at GW on April 1.
The AND Institute was created in partnership with Children’s National Medical Center to establish GW as the go-to institution for cross-disciplinary autism research. Much of the institute’s work will focus on expanding the body of research on autism in girls, developing interventions for adolescents and adults with autism and helping them transition to adulthood. Those areas traditionally have been understudied, Dr. Pelphrey said.
The institute also will use research results to inform public policy and legislative efforts aimed at making accessible and affordable services available for adolescents and adults with autism and neurodevelopmental disabilities.
GW Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa called Dr. Pelphrey “the ideal person” to lead the institute.
“He understands the science behind the disorder and the importance of approaching it not just as a diagnosis but in a more holistic fashion.” Dr. Chalupa said. “I am confident that he will build the institute into a top-tier resource for individuals with autism and their families.”
GW will invest more than $5 million into the AND Institute, which is one of the strategic research areas of the Office of the Vice President for Research. It will be based on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus.
“There has been this generally accepted principle that you intervene early, not in adults,” Dr. Pelphrey said. “But we are seeing more and more through neuroscience that the same level of massive reorganization that the brain experiences in infancy is repeated throughout the life span and intervention may be possible at other stages such as adolescence.”
Increased research of the “social brain” and improved brain imaging has also led to a focus on diagnosing autism in girls, which, until recently, was more difficult to detect, Dr. Pelphrey said.
“Girls develop their social brain earlier, which insulates them,” he said. “It means they can have a genetic risk without presenting symptoms because their brains are compensating. We study how their brains are compensating and can hopefully apply those principles to help children and adolescents with autism cope.”
More than 80 faculty members from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Law, the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Milken Institute School of Public Health currently work on cross-disciplinary projects related to autism and neurodevelopmental disorders.
Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell—whose son Dylan was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old—has gifted $2.5 million to endow Dr. Pelphrey’s position as the inaugural Carbonell Family Professor in Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.
“To see a university that wants to get into this game and to see that the chair of the Board of Trustees is someone who wants to drive that research is the most wonderful thing,” Dr. Pelphrey said. “It’s like the entire university is in line with a singular vision.
“It’s clear that GW is committed to becoming the very best in this field.”
During the past 10 years, Dr. Pelphrey has served as the Harris Professor in the Yale Child Study Center and professor of psychology at Yale University.
He is the founding director of the Center for Translational Developmental Neuroscience and the Neurogenetics Network of the Autism Centers of Excellence Program.
Looking ahead, Dr. Pelphrey said that he is excited to begin collaborating with colleagues across the university and existing GW institutes such as the Computational Biology Institute and the Institute for Neuroscience to develop a shared vision for the AND Institute. He said he also looks forward to leveraging GW’s location to work with the National Institutes of Health, Children’s National Medical Center, Georgetown University and other D.C. institutions.
On his wish list?
A summer course for professional clinicians and families who are planning for the transition period for adolescents with autism to adulthood, an undergraduate course for students interested in autism research and—someday—a residential college within the university for college-age young adults with autism.
Eventually, he said, “I would like for anyone in the D.C. area who Googles ‘autism’ to see that they have a place to come that has everything they need.”
Those are lofty, but attainable, goals at GW, according to Dr. Pelphrey.
“GW is the type of place where you can do things that are new, innovative and forward-thinking—things that you might not be able to do at other institutions,” Dr. Pelphrey said. “You look around, and you can see that GW is really growing and improving its research portfolio. I am happy to become a part of a university with such an entrepreneurial spirit.”