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Physician Resource

Researcher Highlight Q&A: Kevin Pelphrey, MD, Investigates Neurodevelopmental Disorders

The right treatment at the right time can be transformational for children with autism and neurodevelopmental disorders. But for many, even being diagnosed is often delayed. Kevin Pelphrey, MD, aims to change that with his research.

In addition to being a professor and a neuroscientist, Pelphrey also directs UVA Health's Autism Center of Excellence. Pelphrey uses a precision medicine approach to treating autism.

By using brain imaging, genetics, behavioral observation, and talking to each individual child, their research team gathers many data points. When combined with machine learning, data analytics, and other data models, they’re able to develop an individualized treatment plan that meets children where they’re at. And helps their brain development.

See Pelphrey discuss his work and what he loves about it.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on two exciting projects right now. The first is launching our third wave of data collection in our NIH Autism Center of Excellence. Our multidisciplinary team is working to identify and overcome the obstacles to the timely diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in autistic adolescents and adults, focusing on autistic women.

This is important because many people, especially girls, gender-diverse, minority, low-SES, and rural community children, are diagnosed later in life, or not at all. Earlier diagnosis should lead to more timely and improved support and better overall treatment outcomes.

The second project focuses on newborn infants and uses machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to integrate data across levels of analysis from genetics, brain circuits, behavior, and early social interactions to predict risk for, and resilience to, neurodevelopmental disorders.

We are a multidisciplinary group of researchers and clinicians working to develop a universal newborn screening protocol to identify abnormal neurodevelopment before clinical symptoms manifest. We aim to place UVA Health at the forefront of child health and development innovation by sparking a transformative neurodevelopmental disorders biomarker research initiative with high diagnostic, therapeutic, and prognostic value.

What are the most intriguing potential clinical applications of your work?

A precision medicine approach to neurodevelopmental disorders can:

  • Reduce the age of diagnosis
  • Increase the range of interventions
  • Reduce disparities in diagnosis and intervention access

By integrating genetics and brain imaging in the context of computational modeling, our goal is to successfully predict which treatments will work best for each individual at particular points in development to optimize healthy brain development.

What made you choose UVA Health as the place to do your research?

The opportunity to work with the Jefferson Scholars Foundation’s program for undergraduate and graduate students was a major factor in my decision to come to UVA Health. The Foundation supports a fantastic group of students and an intellectual community that fosters curiosity, academic rigor, and citizenship.

What do you wish more people knew about your area of research? 

People often think of brain research as describing set traits or immutable characteristics of people. The more we learn about the developing brain, the more we understand that brain science can help us understand people's unique features, mainly how they learn and the remarkable plasticity of brain development.

I wish more people would embrace this information to empower themselves to better shape their lifelong development.

How did you become interested in your area of research? 

I was always interested in how the brain works and develops. However, my interest in autism directly resulted from my daughter receiving an autism diagnosis in 2008.

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