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News and Media

Neuroscience Professor Begins Research in Multisensory Integration, Autism

Sep. 19, 2012

Liv Combe

Visiting Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Leslie Kwakye (center) studies research data with her team of students, pictures left to right: Adrian Jewell '14, Kyla Gibney '13, Brady Eggleston '14, and Jeremy Potterfield '14.
Sela Miller '15

Imagine you’re at a party, explains Visiting Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Leslie Kwakye. It’s loud. It’s hard to hear people over the music. Someone is standing near you and talking to you, and while you’re listening to what’s being said, you’re not looking at the person who’s saying it; maybe you’re gazing around the room or thinking about what you’ll be doing later that night.

“In a situation like that,” asks Kwakye, “we rely on our ability to fuse what we say and hear to improve our understanding. But do you have to pay attention to those two stimuli — the mouth movements from the speech and what you’re hearing from the speech — to be able to fuse them together?”

This is called multisensory integration — how the different senses interact with each other and alter one’s perception of a situation. It is a key element in the research Kwakye began this summer relating to autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Her work is specifically focused on how the brain combines information from what we see and what we hear in the hopes of answering a basic question: Is attention necessary for multisensory integration?

From when she was a growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Kwakye’s primary interest has always been autism. “My mom is a special education teacher, and I grew up in her classroom with all of the students with special needs,” she says. “I don’t know why I was interested in autism over another disorder; I just think it’s really intriguing because nobody knows the cause yet. Even just understanding what persons with autism perceive, what the world is like for them — we don’t really know. The field is completely wide open.”

Kwakye is a 2006 Oberlin graduate with a triple major in neuroscience, biology, and psychology. Though Kwakye did not know of any professors doing autism research at Oberlin at the time, she took an autism practicum course that took trips to Murray Ridge Center, part of the Lorain County Board of Developmental Disabilities, to work with a classroom of students with the disorder. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Vanderbilt University, where she continued doing research on autism.

Now teaching in the Oberlin neuroscience department as a Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow, Kwakye is able to take what she learned at Vanderbilt and integrate it into her current research — one such example of this is her use of an illusionary task called the McGurk Effect, an experiment she first came across in graduate school.

The McGurk Effect involves a test subject watching a video of someone saying “ga” with audio of that same person saying “ba” dubbed over it. “So people don’t hear ‘ga’ or ‘ba,’” says Kwakye. “They hear either ‘da’ or ‘tha,’ which is a fusion of the two. They’re fusing what they’re seeing with what they’re hearing.”

To incorporate the variable of attention into the experiment, Kwakye and her students made their own additions to the McGurk Effect; while the video is playing, letters and numbers flash on the screen underneath the picture. In one task, one of the letters may or may not be yellow, and the subject must say which one; in another, the subject must look for a number — of the same font, size, and color — that might appear on the screen amidst the letters.  

“You only have limited attentional resources,” says Kwakye. “So as more of your attention is taken away, how does that affect your susceptibility to the McGurk illusion?”

What the team found is that as they take away the subject’s attention, that person doesn’t get the illusion anymore; instead, the majority reports only what they hear. While the subject is able to preserve both their auditory and their visual perception, Kwakye says, when more attention is taken away, they can’t fuse those two senses together anymore.

So how does this research relate to autism?

“It’s something we’re working on, transitioning the project to look at different developmental disorders,” says Kwakye, who, along with a small team of neuroscience students, is currently preparing the project to make that change during the fall semester.

But before the team even makes the switch to a developmental disorder-focused research, Kwakye points out that attentional disruptions are extremely common in cases of ADHD and across the board of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) —which includes “classic” autism, Asperger syndrome, and “atypical” autism, called Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

“Persons with ADHD, ADD, or autism can’t control attention as well as a typical person could,” says Kwakye. “I’ve done research before on the sensory side showing that they have difficulties in properly combining information in what they see and what they hear. We know they have disruptions in the two independently, but we have no idea how that might interact.”

Although they haven’t been able to begin the experiments to see if persons with specific developmental disorders do show the same kinds of multisensory disruptions, Kwakye hopes that if they can understand this better, they could work to develop better methods of helping those persons learn in the classroom or helping them communicate.

“The classroom is an attentionally demanding environment,” says Kwakye, “and now, most of our classrooms are taught in a multisensory way; you don’t just talk, but you have a PowerPoint, or you have some activity for the students to do; you have something for them to see and hear, because that’s been shown to be better for learning. It will be interesting to see if persons with autism can take advantage of that kind of multisensory environment, and if they’re able to combine that information as easily as the rest of us.”

Sometime in the future, if her research does show an attentional disruption in persons with autism, Kwakye hopes to work with educators to develop better strategies for students with special needs to be able to communicate information and facilitate learning.

“It’s too early to say what exactly those strategies might be,” says Kwakye. “We have to do the research first to be able to say.”

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