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Student tapping brain waves to understand autism

Two mission companions with Asperger's inspired his research

BYU accounting major Oliver Johnston grew interested in autism after he served with two LDS mission companions who have Asperger’s syndrome, one form of autism. He noticed that his companions were not lacking sensitivity, but struggled to be socially aware, and he wondered why.

Once back at BYU, Johnston took advantage of a $1,500 ORCA grant offered to support undergraduate research. He’s been studying this emotional delay or disconnect in those with autism with Mikle South, assistant professor of psychology.

“Because of my missionary companions I was fascinated at the social and biological enigma of autism,” he said. “Here is a diagnosis where the underlying biology is not understood, but the diagnoses are increasing. I started in the lab with a very narrow personal focus of working with the individual, but as I have continued I have found that the real power behind our research is not for those with autism alone, but what it does for their families.”

A key component of social awareness is empathy. Johnston’s work employs a method of evaluating empathy by looking at brain waves measured by an EEG machine. To create a situation that could evoke empathy, a research assistant performs a computer test while a child watches with the EEG machine attached to the child’s head. Both the assistant and the child look at a computer screen filled with many arrows facing the same direction and one facing the opposite direction. The research assistant is supposed to identify the different arrow, but to evoke an emotional response, frequently makes a mistake.

Those with autism and those without respond similarly to external computer feedback, Johnston says, but those with autism have reduced brain activity when having to recognize their own mistakes. This may indicate that difficulty in social interactions is not due to a lack of empathy, rather being overwhelmed by the amount of social information.

“Social interactions happen really fast,” said South, “For those with autism, it’s not a lack of empathy, it’s just that the amount of information is overwhelming.”

After he completes his accounting degree, Johnston plans to go into health administration and wants to remain involved in autism research and treatment.

“Accounting, public health, and autism are my passions, but I am still working out how they will all fit together,” said Johnston, who keeps in touch with both of those companions, both of whom went on to serve as senior companions and trainers of other missionaries.

This research will be presented at a college Mary Lou Fulton mentored research conference, as well as the International Meetings for Autism Research in San Diego May 12-14. Johnston and Dr. South, his faculty mentor, are also aiming for a publication in a child psychology research journal.

“This project has already stimulated collaboration with researchers at other institutions who have related work, and two new ORCA applications for undergraduate lab members who want to extend the idea," South said. “It’s the primary area of interest in our lab right now.”

ORCA grants: What they are and how to get one

Every year BYU awards several hundred undergraduates $1,500 for a research or creative project of their own choosing.

While the projects span a wide range of fields, they all involve mentored learning outside the classroom. The skills and experience gained along the way open doors to grad schools, employers and entrepreneurship. Mentored learning is part of why BYU ranks in the Top 10 nationally in terms of where new Ph.D.s received their undergraduate degrees – and why BYU is a top feeder school for law, medicine and dentistry.

ORCA is accepting applications through October 29. Click here to apply.

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Any sign of another study like this one?
  10/12/2010 5:45 PM by Brittany

I work as a therapist with children with autism and find this study fascinating. Are you planning on doing any follow-up studies, maybe using a different empathy-invoking situation to see if the reaction is the same across several situations? I am very interested in this.


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BYU accounting major Oliver Johnston uses an EEG machine to evaluate a child's thinking patterns. It's part of his work to understand empathy among children with autism.
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