Autism researcher on top of the world

Melissa Kirkovski has received the INSAR ‘Distinguished Dissertation’ award for her PhD.

A fascination with the brain and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is paying off for Deakin University neuroscientist Dr Melissa Kirkovski, for both her career and, hopefully one day, people with the disorder.

Dr Kirkovski has just been presented with the 2016 International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) Distinguished Dissertation Award for her PhD research, which was supervised by Professor Paul Fitzgerald at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre (MAPrc) and Associate Professor Peter Enticott from Deakin’s Cognitive Neuroscience Unit in the School of Psychology.

The award was presented at the Society’s annual conference in Baltimore USA (11-14 May), where Dr Kirkovski also delivered her findings.

Focusing on the neuro-biological basis of autism, her research involved investigating gender differences within the brain of people with high functioning ASD.

“There has never been a better time to work in neuroscience,” said Dr Kirkovski.

“Our understanding of brain neuroplasticity is growing exponentially, and new brain stimulation techniques show promise as a potential treatment to be investigated for autism spectrum and other brain disorders.”

Dr Kirkovski is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the School of Psychology’s Cognitive Neuroscience Unit. Director of the Unit and fellow autism expert, Associate Professor Peter Enticott, said her success was “phenomenal.”

[testimonial_text]This is essentially the award for the best autism-related PhD thesis in the world for 2015 – a fantastic achievement.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Associate Professor Peter Enticott” details=”School of Psychology”]

Dr Kirkovski said that developments in techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) are allowing researchers to gain many new insights into brain function.

“Given that ASD is around four times more common in males, we wanted to see if there were any sex differences in brain activity and connectivity in people with high functioning ASD, and to compare this with a control group of people without the condition,” she said.

Her research revealed some surprises. While there was some evidence for difference in brain function, there did not seem to be any differences in the structure of brain fibres.  FMRI showed that males with ASD had reduced brain activity related to social understanding, but there was no evidence of this in females.

Dr Kirkovski is currently planning the next phase of her research.  “We are building our understanding of how people with autism respond to brain stimulation and how brain mechanisms differ between people with autism and those without. We also hope to develop our understanding of how factors such as gender may influence this,” she said.

“While there is still a way to go, we are hoping that our work could one day be used to inform biomedical treatments using TMS to help improve some of the difficulties that people with ASD experience. We may even be able to tailor treatments to different needs.”

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