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Dr Brea Chouinard: Incoming Fellow

Project Title: Improving Social Communication through Brain Training in Autism

Host Institution: Trinity College Dublin

Host PI: Prof Louise Gallagher, TCD

Home Institution: University of Alberta

Email: chouinab@tcd.ie

Project Summary: Currently, social communication therapies for individuals with ASD largely focus on recognising facial expressions. However this does not extend to other social communication skills or improve functioning outside of the therapy setting. We need therapies which will have a larger impact and which can translate from the clinic into everyday life. One potential way of addressing this is through a commercially available brain training programme called CogMed. CogMed has been shown to be effective in improving working memory, attention and focus in individuals with ADHD and traumatic brain injury but has not previously been assessed in individuals with ASD. This project will use CogMed to evaluate and establish how the relationship between working memory as a key cognitive function and social communication skills can be used to verify effective therapies that will generalise to real-world success with employment and relationships. The project will utilise state-of-the-art neuroimaging techniques (rs-fMRI) to elucidate associated brain behaviour relationships. Validation of this programme in a population of people with ASD will increase the availability and quality of therapy for adolescents with ASD; the independence of individuals with ASD; and the employability of high functioning individuals with ASD.

Brea’s Profile: Brea completed her PhD in Rehabilitation Science at University of Alberta (U of A) from 2010-2016. During her PhD studies, in addition to funding for her project, she won an Alberta College of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology Centenary Award; was one of eleven people in Canada named a Killam Scholar for 2013-2015; was one of twenty people in Canada awarded an Autism Research Training Program Scholarship for 2013-2016; and finished in the top three applicants to hold a prestigious Clinician Fellowship through Alberta Innovates Health Solutions for 2013-2016. Her PhD dissertation focused on behavioural and neurological measures of metaphor comprehension in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who had intact syntactic and semantic (structural language) skills. Her dissertation provided some of the first evidence that individuals with ASD and intact language skills understand metaphorical meaning instantly and automatically, similarly to controls. Prior to commencing her PhD in 2010, she worked as a clinical speech-language pathologist specialising in ASD and intensive therapy. Her Masters degree (Speech Language Pathology) and her undergraduate degree (BSc in Biological Sciences) were both completed at the U of A. Brea has conducted and participated in various research studies including: neuroimaging of individuals with aphasia before and after intensive computerised therapy; neuroimaging of children with cerebral palsy before and after intensive standardised therapy; and qualitative study of training for families and school personnel involved with children with autism and challenging behaviours. Her special interests include neuroplasticity, social cognition, interpersonal interaction, and introspective behaviour.