Meet our Authors: William J. Bosl, PhD

William J. Bosl, PhD

Dr. William J. Bosl is a Research Scientist in the Medicine Informatics Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, USA. He is currently preparing a chapter for a forthcoming InTech book on biomedical engineering. We were delighted when he contacted us to let us know that the study, which is the subject of his chapter, was featured in the CNN blog of renowned US physician and media personality Dr Sanjay Gupta.

On reading the post, we simply had to tell you more about this amazing initiative, and get to know Dr. Bosl a little better.

What’s more, since April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day, what better time to celebrate the people who are working tirelessly to find better ways to diagnose, treat and cure autism spectrum disorders?

The Children’s Hospital Informatics Program is part of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), a collaboration between the two great universities, the Boston area teaching hospitals and a number of research centers with the aim of integrating science, medicine and engineering to solve problems in human health.

Children’s Hospital Boston is renowned as one of the very top pediatric hospitals in the United States and is is the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. In 2009, it was ranked first in the areas Heart & Heart Surgery, Neurology & Neurosurgery and Orthopedics in the U.S. News Media Group’s America’s Best Children’s Hospitals list.

Here’s what Dr. Bosl told us…

InTech: Could you tell us a little about your research team and the subject of your work?

Dr. Bosl: The idea for the research that led to this paper came out of a unique new seminar at MIT entitled Neurotechnology Ventures. This reviewed emerging technologies in neuroscience and participants were challenged to invent practical new uses for neurotechnology. The novelty was that interesting pure scientific research was not allowed. We had to come up with ideas that could actually lead to practical solutions to real world problems. I had a general idea about how measuring brain function during early development might show trends or tendencies that would be useful for detecting early signs of disorders, such as autism. The challenge was to determine how to use EEG data for this, since it’s one of the few imaging modalities that is safe for all infants, relatively easy to use and inexpensive.

With that idea in mind, I began to search for collaborators with clinical data and experience working with infant brain development. I began asking around and it wasn’t long before someone recommended that I get in touch with Chuck Nelson, an internationally known child development specialist at Children’s Hospital Boston. Through Dr. Nelson I met Helen Tager-Flusberg, an autism expert who worked with Dr. Nelson on a project that studied brain development in infant siblings of children with autism. I told them of my ideas. They supplied me with data and generously shared their wisdom about early brain development with me. That was the origin of a continuing collaboration between the Children’s Hospital Boston Informatics Program (my home department), the Cognitive Development Laboratory at Children’s Hospital (Professor Charles Nelson, director) and Professor Helen Tager-Flusberg in the Psychology Department at Boston University.

We continue to work together collaboratively to find new ways to incorporate information technology and nonlinear signal processing into the the study of brain function and development, as well as general neuropsychological assessment.

InTech: What does this mean for parents with autistic children?

Dr. Bosl: This research is just one more step in trying to understand how to measure brain development and how to detect when development strays from a typical path. In the short term, unfortunately, this research does not offer any new treatments for autism or to early screening. However, together with continued work to integrate other easily measured data we hope to achieve the capability to assess autism risk much earlier than is currently possible based on behavioral measures alone.

InTech: What do you hope to achieve in the long term in the field of autism?

Dr. Bosl: Brain developments precede observed behaviors. Because the behavioral repertoire of infants is so limited, it is unlikely that an early diagnostic test for autism will ever be achieved using behavioral assessments alone.

Our explicit goal is to identify neural correlates of behavior that can be measured easily and inexpensively in young infants. The latter restrictions are important. A number of new brain imaging technologies have become popular for research recently, such as fMRI, MEG and PET. While these are great research tools, they are much too expensive and cumbersome to be used widely for routine screening.

The explicit goal of our research program is to determine what brain characteristics to measure to enable autism characteristics to be detected as or before they are fully developed. That’s the ideal time to intervene therapeutically. At this moment we don’t have any therapies for infants less than 2 years old – but that’s because we’ve never been able to detect autism spectrum disorders any earlier.

I’m quite confident that if we can reliably measure autism developing early, then creative clinicians will quickly think of new therapeutic approaches for very young infants. In short, our goal is to contribute to the early detection and eventual cure of ASD.

InTech: Why did you decide to publish an Open Access paper?

Dr. Bosl: We believe in Open Access publishing. Virtually all of our research is funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with some from private foundations as well. NIH funds come from public taxes – if the public is paying for this research, then the results should be publicly available to all.

It’s particularly important that other researchers around world, some of whom don’t have access to well-funded academic libraries as we often do in the US, to be able to easily access the latest scientific research. That’s the fastest way to make progress.

Remember, medical research is not just interesting science that has a general cultural value. We’re supposed to be curing diseases and relieving suffering. That gives an urgency to this work. To restrict it’s dissemination seems to not be in anyone’s best interest. The cures that might result from research will benefit everyone.

Dr. Bosl – thank you!

Is this not a truly awe-inspiring illustration of the power of collaboration and sharing in research?

We extend our heartfelt thanks to Dr. Bosl for taking the time from his hectic schedule for this interview.

We wish him and his team the best of luck with their endeavors, and on behalf of autism sufferers, their parents and friends everywhere, we hope their research will soon result in the earlier detection of autism in infants, helping us find better ways to manage this challenging set of conditions.

The book featuring Dr. Bosl’s paper is scheduled for publication at the end of June 2011. The book’s working title is “Biomedical Engineering”.

About Dr. Bosl

Dr. Bosl was originally trained as a computational physicist and has an extensive background in scientific computing and data analysis. He designed algorithms for environmental modeling and integration of remote sensing data at the University of California and Stanford University. During this time he invented and patented a method for computing properties of porous materials from CT scans. Dr. Bosl completed his PhD at Stanford University. Since coming to Harvard and Children’s Hospital, he has completed additional advanced graduate training in clinical neuroscience, child neuropsychology and neurotechnology at Harvard, MIT and Boston University. He is an adjunct lecturer in human neuropsychology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

About Dr. Bosl’s Lab

The focus of the laboratory is to develop clinically useful technology for analyzing brain function and using advanced informatics methods for extracting psychiatric biomarkers from measurements of brain activity. Early autism risk assessment and epilepsy are two primary areas of interest. Dr. Bosl is also involved with developing clinical decision support and mental health assessment technology for use in developing regions of the world.

CNN coverage: http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2011/02/22/brain-scans-may-someday-detect-autism/

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