Dr. John Pruett ’86 presented “Haverford student to NIH-funded clinician-scientist” at the annual William Edward Gwinn ’86 Memorial Science Lecture on April 22. A classmate of William Gwinn at The Haverford School, Pruett shared how honored he was to be giving the lecture in his name. He talked about his journey into medicine and psychiatry, discussed his research into autism spectrum disorder in infants and toddlers, and shared advice for young scientists.
“Some of you aspire to do science as a career – to discover new things, be on the cutting edge of research – and we do our best to support you in those endeavors here at Haverford,” said Dr. Daniel Goduti, Chair of the science department, in his introduction. “Today’s Gwinn lecturer shares something important with all of you – he is also a graduate of Haverford and he has navigated a lot of the same paths you will.”
When reflecting on lessons learned from Haverford, Pruett highlighted the science and English faculty specifically, as well as resilience he learned from playing sports in school.
“Training in English literature was very important to me, and I think reading literature and doing humanities teaches you a way of thinking that lets you bring creativity and different insights into science. I think it makes you a much better scientist,” he said.
Training in English literature was very important to me, and I think reading literature and doing humanities teaches you a way of thinking that lets you bring creativity and different insights into science. I think it makes you a much better scientist.
Pruett also gave a candid discussion of his winding academic path, highlighting that academic confusion is normal. He entered Princeton University studying pre-med. But he also took classes in physics and art history, and declared a major in public policy, before discovering neurophysiology. He graduated from Princeton with a degree in biology and went on to complete a MD-PhD program and postdoc work at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he is a professor of psychiatry, radiology, and psychological and brain sciences.
“My journey involved a lot of training, a lot of luck, and some very influential mentors,” he said.
Once he finished medical school, his internship, and residency, Pruett had a marked interest in child and adolescent psychiatry. After he joined the faculty of Washington University School of Medicine, “I transformed myself into a human cognitive neuroscientist of autism,” he said.
Autism spectrum disorder manifests in the developmental period of a child’s life. Early intervention in the disorder can only take place after a diagnosis. Pruett shared that most clinicians can make a diagnosis by 24 months of age, but the median age for diagnosis and intervention in the U.S. is 4 years old.
His research and lab work centers around using brain functional connectivity MRI scans in infants as young as 6 months in order to see if any of the brain connections in young infants can be predictive of autism behaviors which may later develop in 24-month-old toddlers.
“Over the first year of life, babies who go on to develop autism look similar to typically developing babies. It’s only over the second year of life that the characteristic behavioral features of autism manifest,” said Pruett. “Our question is: Could we identify autism before these key behaviors consolidate? And if we could do that, we could get kids into early interventions and we can possibly improve their outcome beyond what we can do if we intervene after diagnosis.”
Our question is: Could we identify autism before these key behaviors consolidate? And if we could do that, we could get kids into early interventions and we can possibly improve their outcome beyond what we can do if we intervene after diagnosis.
Pruett and his colleagues recently completed a study with a small sample size that had a 100% positive predictive value when it came to correlating patterns of brain functional connections in infants with future autism diagnoses. He has now been funded by the National Institutes of Health to be a co-lead investigator of a large, multi-site study to try to replicate this data.
“This is critically important to say to young future scientists - no scientific finding should be believed until it replicates in an independent sample. That means doing it over again and seeing that it wasn’t just a statistical fluke,” Pruett said. “But if we can replicate what we’re doing, it will set the stage five years from now for a clinical trial where behavioral intervention specialists can put their best ideas for early interventions into play.”
Pruett also noted the importance of studying science to have an eye on impact for the future.
“Really think about how what you’re doing is going to change people’s lives, change the field, change what we know about a particular area, but also help people in the way that your science is translated into medical interventions,” he said.