Attendees of the sixth annual Meeting of the Minds Symposium gather at the Wang Center on Friday, Oct. 30. Autism was the topic of this year’s symposium. ARACELY JIMENEZ / THE STATESMAN

The sixth annual Meeting of the Minds Symposium was held on Friday, Oct. 30 at the Wang Center to showcase ongoing achievements in neuroscience research.

The Stony Brook Neurosciences Institute organized the event, which had more than 200 people in attendance. Physicians, nurses, students, parents and other health care professionals were invited to attend the event.

Autism was the topic of this year’s symposium. Autism spectrum disorders are a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that impairs a child’s ability to socialize and communicate. The disorders can vary in severity, which is why it is called the autism “spectrum.” About every one in 68 American children are diagnosed with autism, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This topic was chosen because the institute is trying to rebuild an autism program and make the university a center for autism research again, Stony Brook Neurosciences Institute Administrator Christian Sheline said.

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“Here at Suffolk County we really are trying to build research and clinical treatment to help people with autism,” said Eduardo Constantino, the director of Clinical Services in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science. Constantino added that the Neurosciences Institute is not the only department that is contributing to the new research center for autism.  

Dr. Ellen Li, a professor of medicine and a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, presented her research on Autistic children with gastrointestinal disorders, which Autistic children are 3.5 times more likely to have than non-Autistic children.  

“All these different disciplines and backgrounds, and people working together provides a more united front and more integration, which I think will make everyone stronger,” said Dr. Jennifer Keluskar, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Stony Brook.

The keynote speaker for the symposium was Dr. Joseph Buxbaum, who titled his presentation “Genes to Novel Therapeutics in Autism.” Buxbaum is the director of the Seaver Autism Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He presented his research on genes that contributed to autism susceptibility.

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Buxbaum described how autism is viewed from a top-down behavioral point of view and is about shaping behaviors. He argues for a bottom-up approach, where researchers look at the genes that cause autism to help create better forms of treatment.

He explained how some genes affect the range of symptoms that create the autism spectrum. Some genes create the smaller effects of autism, while others create the major ones. He focused on his research into common and rare genetic variants that determine the strength of autism disorders, and he spoke about how understanding these variants can lead to steps for better autism treatments.

Some of the event’s attendees had a personal connection to autism research. Constantino has a 14-year old autistic son. Other members of the audience, such as freshman biology major Demetra Catalano, had younger siblings with autism.

“This event is redefining how we look at autism,“ Catalano said.  “It’s not just one thing. It’s all different approaches to the same goal.”

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