Profile of Jan Freyberg, who on completion of his PhD at the Autism Research Centre, has now joined the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London.
We hear about Jan’s career in autism research and how it all started.
Name: Jan Freyberg
* How long have you been a researcher at the Autism Research Centre (ARC)?
I started working in the ARC as an undergraduate in 2011, and then joined the ARC full time as a PhD student in 2012. I finished that in 2016, after which I joined the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London. I still work with researchers from the ARC, however.
* What influenced your decision to work in autism research and specifically at the ARC?
Studying as an undergraduate in Cambridge, I had lectures by Simon Baron-Cohen in my experimental psychology course. Autism got my scientific curiosity, and I joined the lab to work on what I thought was a fascinating research topic.
* Can you tell us about the projects you’re currently working on?
I study visual perception in autism. Many psychiatric conditions, including autism, feature atypical sensory processing, which can be caused by the same issues in the brain that are causing other symptoms. By studying how people see the world, I hope to find out more about fundamental brain mechanisms in autism. Using vision science to study these conditions also has the benefit of being non-invasive and quick: participants can take part in stress-free experiments and still help us learn a lot about the brain in autism.
* What do you find most challenging about your work?
One of the biggest challenges in my work is understanding how brain circuits – on extremely small scales – can produce behaviour. Even though we understand a lot about what different areas of the brain do, it’s still difficult to conceptualise how changes within those structures then go on to produce our perception of the world. But really, this is what we need to understand: changes in the brain in autism are subtle, and so it can be hard to make the link between the small scales and large scales.
* What do you think will change in autism research over the next five years?
I think a deeper understanding of heterogeneity of autism will really change how autism is understood, treated, and diagnosed. It’s well known that autism is heterogeneous, but what is much less well known is what the biological causes of this might be. Once we have a better understanding of the myriad of different groups within the autism spectrum, research will be able to be much more focused.
* If you were offered a large donation from ART, what would be your dream research project?
I would love to conduct a large research study that encompasses a broad range of people on the autism spectrum. Doing so requires a lot of manpower: finding the participants, running the testing, and analysing the results. But it would also substantially improve our understanding of the biology behind sensory processing, and different subgrouping of the autism spectrum. It would also allow us to access some of the groups less represented in most autism research: the people with low-functioning autism, for whom it is difficult to get enrolled in research studies at the moment.
* Can you tell us about some of the people you’ve met while working with the ARC?
The first people I met at the ARC were my PhD supervisors, Simon Baron-Cohen and Caroline Robertson. They helped me an immense amount with my PhD, safely guided me through my examinations, and in general provided a great deal of support. But I also met a really wide range of other researchers at the ARC. Since the Centre studies so many aspects of autism, it’s great to meet people working on something completely different from myself – perhaps the genetics of autism, or how autism development works in early life.
* What do you do when you’re not working?
I really like travelling and seeing the world, so I try to do as much of that as I can! I go on hiking holidays a lot, but I also really love going to new cities and exploring their history.
* What would we be surprised to know about you?
I originally enrolled at University to do Chemistry, so it was really quite lucky that they allowed me to change to Neuroscience – I don’t think I would have enjoyed being a Chemist as much as I enjoy studying the brain.