Israeli neuroscientist Dr. Ilan Dinstein was in Vancouver last month to talk about autism research. (photo by Adele Lewin)
Neuroscientist Dr. Ilan Dinstein was in Vancouver last month to share research and expand knowledge on best practices internationally. An associate professor of psychology and cognitive and brain sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Dinstein is the director of the new National Autism Research Centre (NAC) in Israel.
David Berson, executive director of the Canadian Associates of BGU for British Columbia and Alberta, told the Independent: “CABGU was delighted to be a part of hosting Dr Ilan Dinstein in Metro Vancouver. This visit was spearheaded by Dr. Grace Iarocci, Dr. Elina Birmingham and Dr. Sam Doesburg from SFU [Simon Fraser University] and Dr. Tim Oberlander from B.C. Children’s Hospital.
“Ilan Dinstein is a true reflection of the pioneering spirit that is unique to the Negev region of Israel, where, over the past five years, clinicians from Soroka University Medical Centre and researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have organically come together to collaborate for the betterment of all of the residents with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] in the region.”
Dinstein spoke with the Independent about the new centre and the purpose of his visit to Canada.
“We started the centre five years ago, to try to understand different causes of autism,” he said. “Autism is not one disorder. There are different sub-types of autism, with different possible roots and risk factors. Some of those factors are biological or genetic; others might be environmental. For example, a premature birth might be a risk factor in the child developing autism. Or the age of the parents – a child of older parents might have a higher risk of autism diagnosis than if the same parents were younger. We at the centre are trying to discover how the combination of genetic and environmental issues affects autism development.”
According to Dinstein, one of the reasons for the creation of the centre was the way science is funded in Israel. “The funding usually comes for one specific question,” he explained, “but autism is a complex, systematic disorder and it needs many facets of study, measurement and research; it needs collaboration and sharing of information. At the centre, we are able to combine different fields of study with the clinical applications, as we work together with the Soroka medical centre.”
The scientists of the NAC study autistic patients from different multidisciplinary angles: neuroscience and cellular biology, language pathology and motor tracking, even facial features.
“The truly unique thing is that we do all our studies inside the hospital,” Dinstein said. “Parents come in with their children, usually when the children are about 3 years old and the parents and the children’s teachers notice the kids’ uncommon behavioural patterns. The diagnosis of autism usually takes four visits. During those visits, we work in collaboration with the doctors, measuring various characteristics of the child’s development to arrive at the right diagnosis.
“We also started a database of all our patients, so we have a centralized well of knowledge about how various biological, cultural and social factors might contribute to autism development.”
Of course, not all of the parents agree to have their child added to the database, but Dinstein said that their recruitment rate is about 80%.
After the diagnosis, the scientists participate in determining a personalized treatment program, based on their research. “Such a program might include teaching the children useful behavioural habits, helping them with language acquisition or providing occupational therapy,” explained Dinstein. “Some autistic kids are very agitated and certain motions, like spinning, might calm them down. Sometimes, autistic children need to learn basic skills: how to dress themselves or brush their teeth.”
Pharmaceuticals can also help children cope with autism, but Dinstein said that only about 10% of patients use medications.
At the NAC, the scientists don’t treat patients, but rather study and make recommendations, develop new technologies and new methods of dealing with the disorder. Working together with clinical professionals, they hope to contribute to a higher rate of success in treatment.
One of the most important aspects of Dinstein’s and his colleagues’ work is an annual follow-up on the patients in the database. Families are required to come back once a year after the initial diagnosis, so the service providers can see their progress, determine what worked and what didn’t, and adjust their recommendations accordingly.
“We are still in the process of enlarging this project,” said Dinstein. “We want to open other locations in Israel, make our database to cover the entire state of Israel.”
The centre’s autism research, in particular its database of patients with autism, inspired interest locally, from scientists and clinicians to families and service providers. The invitation for Dinstein to visit Vancouver came from a range of people.
“Your researchers want to create a similar database to ours, Canada-wide,” said Dinstein about his presentation at the Children’s Hospital. “I met with scientists from UBC [University of British Columbia] and SFU, even some from Victoria. I also met medical professionals, parents, some service providers and stakeholders. I see these meetings as the beginning of a close relationship between autism research in Israel and in Canada. There are similarities there, but there are differences, too. Both countries have different ethnic maps, cultural traditions and genetic variations. We all want to know how such diversity affects autism.”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].