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Discoveries that improve human health and welfare

THE KU LIFE SPAN INSTITUTE brings together scientists and students at the intersections of education, behavioral science and neuroscience to study problems that directly affect the health and well-being of individuals and communities in Kansas, as well as across the nation and world. 



investigators, students and staff



million awarded for research in FY2019


60 years

of improving human health and welfare

Profile: Matthew Mosconi

Small movements: Researcher seeks to understand the brain mechanisms in neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorder

Matthew Mosconi

Early diagnosis of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder is critical to providing access to early intervention and other therapies that have a direct impact on the child's future quality of life.  Autism is diagnosed using behavioral standards as we still do not fully understand the genetics and other factors that may cause autism.  

That's one reason Matthew Mosconi focuses his research on understanding the development of behavioral and cognitive issues characteristic of autism spectrum disorder and specifically, identifying the brain mechanisms that lead to them.

Mosconi is the director of the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Treatment (K-CART), and director of the Neurobehavioral Development Laboratory, both at the University of Kansas. In this interview, he looks back at his first four years with K-CART and shares his aspirations for autism research at KU.

How would you describe your experience at KU?
A major appeal of KU was the great potential for collaborating with leading behavioral researchers interested in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and the strong reputation of the Life Span Institute for fostering collaborative and productive research. The reality has exceeded my expectations. People here are very eager to support each other’s work and identify collaborative opportunities. It is difficult to create and maintain an environment that actively promotes high impact research without making investigators compete with each other or experience a shark-tank type of environment – KU and the Life Span Institute have skillfully struck and maintained this balance. Read more

Findings: Omega-3 fatty acids

Maternal and child health: What happens early really matters

Baby and mother

Few things are as important in a baby’s first year of life as nutrition – that’s a given. But new research suggests that increasing intake of an omega-3 fatty acid while pregnant has a positive effect on the fetus that continues to affect the child’s development years later.

A team of scientists at the KU Life Span Institute recently authored a study that showed that pregnant women who consumed a supplement of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a nutrient added to U.S. infant formulas since 2002, tend to have children with higher fat-free body mass at 5 years old. The findings of the experimental study, presented in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest that improving maternal DHA nutrition has a favorable programming effect on the fetus that influences body composition in early childhood.

“DHA is a nutrient found in the highest concentrations in oily fish such as salmon and tuna, foods many Americans don’t eat a lot of, so they tend to get low intakes,” said Susan Carlson, professor in the Department of Dietetics & Nutrition in the School of Health Professions. “Because U.S. intakes are low and because DHA is highly concentrated in the brain where it increases dramatically in the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years of life, I have had a long interest in whether more of this nutrient is needed for optimal health during early development. DHA can be delivered to the fetus by increasing maternal intake during pregnancy and to the breast-fed infant by increasing maternal intake during lactation, which increases DHA in mothers’ milk.” Read more

Program: Transition to Post-Secondary Education

Expanding horizons: KU program for students with intellectual disabilities offers academic, employment and social opportunities

Noah Kruegar

When Noah Krueger came to KU in the fall of 2016, one of the first challenges to overcome was learning how the KU bus system worked. Like any KU freshman student unaccustomed to public transit, he struggled at first with figuring out which bus went where and when.

But two years after starting a program for students with intellectual disabilities, he can not only check off success at navigating the bus system, he said. He has completed two years of classes at KU and grown academically and socially – and he can teach other people how to ride the bus, too.

“The bus was a big deal,” Noah said. “But now I’ve learned living on my own, grocery shopping, budgeting, working, and living with friends.”

Noah is just one of the 18 students who are enrolled in or have completed a two-year certificate at KU through the Transition to Postsecondary Education program. Funded through a five-year federal grant to the Life Span Institute in 2015, and in collaboration with the KU School of Education, the program is the only one of its kind in Kansas that combines career development, academics and social skills for students with intellectual disabilities.

The 2019 freshman class in the program have diverse education backgrounds, experiences and interests, including working with children, athletics, musical theater, and interior design.


March 12, 6-7:30 pm: LEND Family Education Series Talk

Special Education: Parents' Rights & Responsibilities with Darla Nelson-Metzger of Families Together, Inc., at the Edwards Campus, Regnier Hall. Information here

April 10, 8:30 am - 4 pm: KU Autism Conference

Autism Across the Life Span brings together community members, educators, therapists, service providers and researchers to focus on the brain, mental health, intervention, transition and self-advocacy during this one-day conference. Register here.



Some children in the U.S. grow up under severe disadvantage in terms of the amount and quality of language they are exposed to in their earliest years. Researchers have documented that some children are exposed to roughly 30 million fewer words than other children during years that are critical for learning language. Researchers call this the “word gap” and say it portends lifelong consequences.  

Individuals with disabilities or who identify as LGBTQ+ often encounter difficulties in navigating the American health care system. A new study from the University of Kansas has found that people with autism spectrum disorder who identify as LGBTQ+ have greater health disparities than their peers, including being denied service or being told by doctors they couldn’t be transgender because autism would prevent them from understanding their own sexuality.