Our students are co-authors on papers published in leading scientific journals. They help with all aspects of the psychological and behavioral testing, data collection and analysis. They gain experience that will serve them well long after they leave Bucknell.

David Evans

The students of Professor David Evans, psychology, interview people with neurodevelopmental disorders and their families, set up electroencephalograms (EEGs) and administer MRIs at the Geisinger-Bucknell Autism and Developmental Medicine Center. It is the only undergraduate program of its kind in the country, and Evans wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The students crave real experiences like this. They can sit in class and hear about a disorder, but working with families and children is another level of education,” he says. “Our students are co-authors on papers published in leading scientific journals. They help with all aspects of psychological and behavioral testing, data collection and analysis. They gain experience that will serve them well long after they leave Bucknell.”

Evans’ recent work in neuropsychiatric disorders includes investigating the genetic risk factors for autism. The goal is to combine the understanding of genetics with knowledge of how genes develop the brain and how the brain, in turn, produces certain behaviors.

“In many cases of autism, we are finding that there are genomic or genetic variations. We may diagnose patients based on the presence of certain behaviors associated with autism, and we recognize that those behaviors could vary widely – from extreme to mild,” Evans says. “If we have 100 children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, half of them may have completely different genetic causes for the same behaviors. Because of this, there is no reason why we should expect a particular treatment medication to treat them all similarly.”

He compares such a one-size-fits-all approach to prescribing the same antihistamine to treat a cough. The cough is a symptom that could be caused by allergies, influenza, emphysema or even cancer. The same treatment wouldn’t be equally effective in treating these different causes, even if the symptoms are similar. The genetics-first approach will help doctors customize behavioral and pharmacological treatments for patients.

In one project, Evans is studying the connection between a genetic anomaly called 22q11.2 deletion syndrome and the risk the syndrome poses for developing schizophrenia later in life. “We know some kids with this deletion syndrome might develop autism, some may develop schizophrenia, or some may develop bipolar disorder. Others might not,” he says. “The point is we aren’t starting with a particular diagnosis, then studying the behaviors. We are trying to identify the underlying causes first, and then examine what accounts for the variability in the behavior. We’re also trying to identify these patterns early in development, when the brain is more ‘plastic.’ Early intervention is always better. We are trying to do meaningful research to make people’s lives better.”

Posted Feb. 12, 2015

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