Background: Significant advances in understanding brain development and behavior have not been accompanied by revisions of traditional academic structure. Disciplinary isolation and a lack of meaningful interdisciplinary opportunities are persistent barriers in academic medicine. To enhance clinical practice, research, and training for the next generation, academic centers will need to take bold steps that challenge traditional departmental boundaries. Such change is not only desirable but, in fact, necessary to bring about a truly innovative and more effective approach to treating disorders of the developing brain.
Methods: I focus on developmental disorders as a convergence point for transcending traditional academic boundaries. First, the current taxonomy of developmental disorders is described with emphasis on how current diagnostic systems inadvertently hinder research progress. Second, I describe the clinical features of autism, a phenomenologically defined condition, and Rett and fragile X syndromes, neurogenetic diseases that are risk factors for autism. Finally, I describe how the fields of psychiatry, psychology, neurology, and pediatrics now have an unprecedented opportunity to promote an interdisciplinary approach to training, research, and clinical practice and, thus, advance a deeper understanding of developmental disorders.
Results: Research focused on autism is increasingly demonstrating the heterogeneity of individuals diagnosed by DSM criteria. This heterogeneity hinders the ability of investigators to replicate research results as well as progress towards more effective, etiology-specific interventions. In contrast, fragile X and Rett syndromes are ‘real’ diseases for which advances in research are rapidly accelerating towards more disease-specific human treatment trials.
Conclusions: A major paradigm shift is required to improve our ability to diagnose and treat individuals with developmental disorders. This paradigm shift must take place at all levels – training, research and clinical activity. As clinicians and scientists who are currently constrained by disciplinary-specific history and training, we must move towards redefining ourselves as clinical neuroscientists with shared interests and expertise that permit a more cohesive and effective approach to improving the lives of patients.