Research News

Scroll through recent research or click the category icon to the right of each title for similar research summaries. If you would like more background context on a particular piece of research, please click the link next to the “Reading Room Guide,” the small character at the bottom-left of each research story. He will transport you to the appropriate page in Autism Reading Room. You can access original publication sources and other popular media articles by clicking the news buttons at the bottom-right of each summary.

Inexpensive Brain Scans Could Predict Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on May 23, 2018

Background: A reliable biomarker for early detection of autism is critical. Electroencephalography (EEG), a technique for recording and mapping electrical activity in the brain – could provide such a measure. During this non-invasive and relatively inexpensive procedure, small metal discs called electrodes are placed on the scalp to detect fluctuations in the voltage given off by the brain’s neurons over time.

 

What’s New: In a new study, researchers assessed whether EEG data could accurately predict emergence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in very young children. They performed EEG procedure on 99 high-risk children (defined as having an older sibling with ASD) and 89 age-matched controls up to seven times, beginning when the children were as young as 3 months old and ending when the children were 3 years old.

 

The researchers found:

 

  • Patterns in EEG data allowed researchers to predict nearly 100 percent of ASD cases prospectively diagnosed using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) at either 18, 24, or 36 months of age.
  • The EEG data also helped predict the severity of ASD as early as 3 months of age.
  • Significant differences were evident between the EEG data of the high-risk versus  the low-risk group. These differences were most pronounced at 12 months of age.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that EEG could be a useful tool, along with behavioral analyses, for diagnosing ASD early. Research has shown that early diagnosis is associated with improved outcomes for children with ASD.


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CDC Data Show Increase in Autism Diagnosis

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on May 9, 2018

 

Background: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, regularly monitors communities to make estimates of the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among children across the country. In 2016, the CDC estimated ASD prevalence of one in 68 for 8-year-olds based on data collected from 2010 to 2012. Prior to that, the prevalence among 8-year-olds was estimated to be one in 150.

 

What’s New: The latest CDC data – collected in 2014 – provide a new estimate for the prevalence of ASD among 8-year-old children: one in 59. To arrive at this figure, the researchers reviewed the records of more than 300,000 children in 11 states.

 

The researchers found:

 

  • The overall prevalence of ASD in 2014 was 16.8 per 1,000 – or one in 59 – in the sites surveyed.
  • That proportion provides a rough estimate for autism prevalence in the country; however, the results are not entirely generalizable as they come from only 11 sites.
  • The median age at which members of the sample group received an ASD diagnosis was 4 years and 4 months – down slightly from 4 years and 5 months in previous years.
  • The ratio of boys to girls receiving ASD diagnoses decreased slightly – from 4.5:1 in 2002-2012 to 4:1 in 2014.
  • While white children continue to have higher rates of ASD diagnoses than their black and Hispanic peers, that difference became less pronounced in 2014.

 

Why it’s important: The continued increase in ASD prevalence among children raises a major concern for clinicians and researchers alike. However, the leveling of diagnosis rates among various groups – boys versus girls, white versus minority children – suggests that ASD diagnosis may be improving among previously underrepresented groups. Further surveillance is needed to determine the factors contributing to ASD prevalence increases.


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Older Adults with Autism May Need Psychiatric Care

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on April 26, 2018

 

Background: While Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is most often diagnosed in childhood, the disorder affects people of all ages. However, very little research has been to assess the needs of older adults with ASD.

 

What’s New: A recent study looked into co-occurring conditions in people over the age of 50 with ASD. The researchers examined data from more than 600 individuals who were eligible for disability services in Sweden between 2002 and 2012 – all with ASD diagnoses. They aimed to determine the rates of intellectual disability, affective disorders, mental illness, substance abuse, and pharmaceutical prescriptions in this group.

 

The researchers found:

 

  • The majority of individuals in this group (57%) had no intellectual disability.
  • Half of the individuals assessed had at least one psychiatric disorder, and the most commonly diagnosed were affective disorders such as bipolar.
  • Most of the group (63%) had received some sort of psychiatric care.
  • Individuals in this group were very likely to have been prescribed some sort of psychotropic medication – with 63% of patients with no diagnosed intellectual disability and 84% of patients with intellectual disability having been prescribed antipsychotic drugs.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that older people living with ASD have a need for psychiatric care services. Further study of this group could find explanations for the patterns in co-occuring conditions (such as higher rates of psychiatric disorders among people with Asperger’s syndrome), and guide therapeutic interventions for this vulnerable group.


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Neurofeedback Training Improves Brain Connectivity in People with ASD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on April 17, 2018

 

Background: In recent years, researchers and clinicians have begun to leverage on brain imaging technology to provide “neurofeedback.” Through this process, they image the brain for aberrant activity and provide positive feedback when desired activity in that area is achieved. That positive feedback can take the form of a green light or another positive signal to participants.

 

What’s New: A recent study assessed the effectiveness of neurofeedback using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, in young adult and adolescent males with ASD. The researchers conducted four training sessions over a period of eight days in 17 males with ASD, between the ages of 15 and 25, alongside 11 age-matched controls with typical development. Each training consisted of a series of “rest scans” with no task for the participant, along with a series of “puzzle tasks,” during which the participants attempted to reveal a hidden picture underneath a blank screen. When the participants exhibited the desired brain activity, positive feedback was given via revealing part of the picture and playing an upbeat sound.

 

The researchers found:

 

  • The training resulted in improved connectivity in the whole brain, with the greatest differences observed in connectivity between two regions of interest, which previous research has linked to ASD. These changes were not found in the control group.
  • The observed improvements in connectivity continued in subsequent “rest scans.”
  • The improvements in brain connectivity correlated with improvements in the ASD participants’ behavior, as assessed by behavioral questionnaires filled out by parents before and after the series of trainings.

 

Why it’s important: This study provides further evidence of the role of brain connectivity in ASD. It also points to a potentially effective and non-invasive treatment option to address related behavioral issues. Larger studies including other participants (e.g., children and female groups) could further explore this possibility.


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Children with ASD Are at Greater Risk of Sleep Problems

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on March 7, 2018

 

Background: Parents and caretakers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, may notice disturbances in their children’s sleep. Among the many co-occurring symptoms in ASD, disturbed sleep can exacerbate existing issues with behavior and attention.

 

What’s New: A recent study compared sleep disturbances among children with a series of neurodevelopmental disorders. The researchers administered a known sleep questionnaire to the families of 193 children between the ages of 2 and 15 — 26 of whom had Smith-Magenis syndrome, 70 of whom had Angelman syndrome, 30 of whom had ASD, 20 of whom had tuberous sclerosis complex, and 47 of whom demonstrated typical development. The questionnaire assessed the children’s bedtime routines, sleep problems (such as waking during the night or taking more than an hour to fall asleep), and the perceived effectiveness of any attempted treatments.

 

The researchers found:

 

  • Sleep problems occurred with greater frequency and consistency in the groups with neurodevelopmental disorders than in the typically developing group. 

 

  • Forty-three percent of the children with ASD experienced severe night waking problems.

 

  • Thirty percent of the children with ASD experienced severe issues with settling down to sleep.

 

  • Children with ASD were more likely than the other groups to experience sleep anxiety, bedtime resistance, and unusual sleep behavior — with rates of 13, 15, and 22 percent, respectively.

 

  • Other sleep problems (including sleep-disordered breathing) were more common in the ASD group than in the typically developing group, but more common still among children with the other neurodevelopmental disorders.

 

  • Interestingly, sleep-disordered breathing was linked to gastrointestinal symptoms in the ASD group.

Why it’s important: This study contributes to a growing body of research accounting for a holistic picture of ASD’s symptoms and possible causes. Further research could reveal syndrome-specific profiles, paving the way for targeted therapy.


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Children with ASD Show Patterned Sensory Behavior

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on February 28, 2018

 

Background: To date, autism is behaviorally diagnosed by trained clinicians using a comprehensive approach that includes systematic and structured observation of a child in the two areas: (1) Social interactions and Communications and (2) Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. The range and degree of autism symptoms falls on a continuum, called the autism spectrum. Therefore, both children with severe deficits as well as those who are mildly affected are considered to have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  However, little research has leveraged physiological markers or sensory information to classify ASD subtypes among children.

 

What’s New: A recent study explored a process for subtyping preschool aged children based on sensory processing patterns, along with social acumen, communication, motor skills, and adaptive behavior. The study employed a model called latent profile analysis, in which observable variables (such as scores on the Short Sensory Profile) are related to hidden variables (such as an underlying sensory subtype). After analyzing data from 400 children with ASD between the ages of 3 and 6, the researchers were able to define four subtypes:

 

  • Sensorimotor – The largest subtype identified, this group had high scores in taste-smell sensitivity and sensory seeking, and was under-reactive to sensory stimuli such as heat or sound (hypo-responsivity). Compared to the other groups, this subtype was characterized by decreased language, social, and adaptive behavior skills. The average age of children in this group was 4 years old.

 

  • Selective Complex – Like the Sensorimotor group, this subtype was characterized by sensory seeking, hyporesponsivity, and decreased language and social skills. However, developments varied among this group, with higher motor skills overall. The average age of children in this group was 4.5 years old.

 

  • Perceptive-Adaptable – Children in this group showed similar patterns to those in the Selective Complex group – with high scores for motor skills and low scores for social acumen and language. However, the children in this group scored higher in those categories overall, as well as in adaptive behavior. The average age of children in this group was 4 years old.

 

  • Vigilant-Engaged – The smallest subtype identified, this group had the hghest developmental skills, with high scores for language, adaptive behavior, and social acumen. They had increased sesntivity in auditory-visual stimuli, as well as taste and smell. This was the oldest group, with an average age of just over 4.5 years.

Why it’s important: This study explored a holistic method for sub-typing children with ASD – which could one day have implications on treatment and shed light on the disorder’s underlying cause. However, considering the groups differed significantly by age, these patterns should be researched further to define subtypes more concretely.


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Vitamin D Improves Autism Symptoms in Clinical Trial

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on February 7, 2018

 

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is associated of differences in language, behavior and social cognition. For some, these symptoms are quite mild, while others require lifelong care. As such, many families seek therapies to address the difficulties their loved ones face. While no standardized treatments exist for individuals with ASD, several treatment strategies have been developed, specific to the type and severity of symptoms.

 

What’s New: Several studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency is common in children with ASD. Now, a clinical trial proves that link – and suggests that vitamin D supplementation could improve ASD symptoms. The researchers assigned 109 children with ASD between the ages of 3 and 10 to one of two groups. The treatment group received a vitamin D supplement of up to 5000 IU daily, while the control group received a placebo.

 

After four months, the researchers found:

 

  • ASD symptoms – as measured by the Child Autism Rating Scale, Aberrant Behavior Checklist, Social Responsiveness Scale, and Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist – improved in the group that took vitamin D, but not in the control group.

 

  • Blood tests taken before and after the trial showed no major differences in biological markers (such as white blood cell count and glucose levels) between the two groups at either timepoint.

 

  • The children in the treatment arm tolerated a daily dose of 300 IU per kilogram of weight with few side effects.

 

Why it’s important: This is clinical trial explored the potential of vitamin D3 to aid symptoms in children with ASD. Future studies could refine this treatment strategy and explore the link between ASD and vitamin D deficiency.


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Body Movements Could Help Detect ASD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on January 25, 2018

 

Background: Given the increasing prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, families seek early and reliable diagnosis to plan for appropriate interventions, leading to better outcomes. However, the established screening procedures are based on observation of children’s behavioral features by clinicians, so screening and diagnosis typically don’t take place until well after infancy.

 

What’s New: A recent study identified a biomarker that could potentially detect ASD based on movement. Wearing electromagnetic sensors on their hands, 71 individuals were instructed to point at a target on a screen repeatedly. The researchers recorded physiological information about the movements of the participants – whose ages ranged from 3 to 31, and 30 of whom had an ASD diagnosis – detecting differences that were imperceptible to the naked eye.

 

The researchers found:

 

• An algorithm was able to separate electromagnetic “noise” from the true neurological signals underlying the participants’ movements. Each individual’s movements corresponded a metric or “score.”

 

• The lower a participant’s score, the more likely he or she was to have an ASD diagnosis.

 

• Lower scores also corresponded to more severe cases of ASD.

 

Moreover, 17 out of 20 parents of children with ASD undergoing the same test (who did not have ASD diagnoses themselves) showed movement patterns that differed from typical adults but were reminiscent of their children.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that extremely subtle differences in movement detected by quantitative measures can serve as potential evidence of ASD, and that there is a likely genetic component to the neurological features underlying these differences. Future research could shed light on the link between genes, neurons, and differences in movement – and could possibly point towards new avenues for early diagnosis.


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Gut Microorganisms Linked to Brain Function

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on January 18, 2018
 

Background: Families of individuals who have Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, often notice that they have atypical feeding patterns and gastrointestinal (GI) dysfunction, such as chronic constipation. A number of recent studies have reported significant number of children with having at least one GI symptom. Researchers are actively looking into the link between how gut function could alter brain function and behavior.

 

What’s New: A recent study in rats explored how different compositions of microorganisms in the gut —  the “good bacteria” that aid in digestion — could affect brain function. The researchers fed 22 male rats one of four different diets: a balanced diet, a high-fat diet, a high-fiber diet, or a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. They collected and analyzed fecal samples before and three weeks after the experiment began, and studied the brains of the animals after three weeks on the diets using sophisticated imaging techniques.

 

The researchers found:

 

• Rats who ate the high-fiber and the high-protein diets had different functioning, when compared to the rats who ate the balanced diet, of the left frontal neocortex — a part of the brain associated with higher-order functions such as language and generation of motor commands.

 

• While those same differences weren’t observed in the brains of the rats who ate the high-fat diet, the scans revealed different functioning in several areas of the brain in that group, as compared to the rats who ate the balanced diet.

 

• Additional differences were observed in the brains of the rats who ate the high-protein diet, including distinct functioning of the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right sides of the brain and is associated with vision, eye movement, attention, and other functions.

 

• There were significant differences in the microorganisms present in the fecal matter of the rats from each diet group at the end of the experiment. When comparing the composition of the fecal matter taken at the beginning and the end of the experiment, the researchers could accurately predict which diet each rat had been assigned.

 

Why it’s important: While this study did not directly study ASD, it provides clues regarding the connection between GI symptoms and the cause of the disorder itself. Future studies could refine this link and potentially lay the groundwork for therapies targeting the gut.

 

Feature image depicts beneficial gut bacteria and is the work of Darryl Leja of the National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health. The image has been adapted for this page.

 


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Cognitive Therapy Boosts Outcomes for Adults with Autism

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on January 9, 2018

 

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is marked by differences in the processing and communication of both social and non-social information. While a wealth of research has focused on the benefits of early intervention for children with ASD, relatively few studies have explored the effects of therapies on affected adults.

 

What’s New: A recent study evaluated a technology-based rehabilitation approach known as cognitive enhancement therapy (CET) among adults with ASD. The researchers administered therapy over the course of 18 months to 54 individuals, between the ages of 16 and 44, identified as verbal with ASD. The participants for CET underwent computer-based neurocognitivie training along with group-based training focused on social cognition development.  Interestingly, the outcome of CET was compared to that from another therapy, enriched supportive therapy involving improvement of coping skills in individual and group-based sessions.

The researchers found:

 

Both forms of therapy were linked to improvements in neurocognitive function (measured by MATRICS Consensus Cognitive Battery), with the participants who underwent CET enjoying greater gains after 9 months, but not after 18.

 

  • The greatest improvements among the participants who underwent CET were in attention and processing speed.
  • Following the trial, the participants who underwent CET were rated higher than the other participants in managing emotions, emotional intelligence, tolerance, and perception.
  • Individuals who received CET were much more likely to secure employment following after 9 months of the trial.

Why it’s important: This study suggests that cognitive enhancement theory could improve outcomes for adults with ASD, meriting further research.


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Autism Symptom Severity and Mothers’ Immune Response

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on December 22, 2017

 

Background: What role the non-genetic factors play towards development of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is a major concernSeveral recent studies have suggested a link between illness or infection during pregnancy and the likelihood that the resulting child have ASD. However, few have established a link between mothers’ history of immune activity and the severity of social differences in the children who go on to receive a diagnosis.

 

What’s New: A recent retrospective study explored that potential link – comparing the severity of social symptoms in 220 children with ASD against their mothers’ histories of immune activity while pregnant. The researchers administered the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-Generic (ADOS-G) to the children, and had their caregivers complete the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) to assess the severity of impairments in the following five areas: awareness, cognition, communication, motivation, and mannerisms. Finally, primary caregivers completed family medical histories as part of the study.

 

The researchers found:

 

  • SRS scores were higher (indicating greater severity of social symptoms) in children whose mothers had a history of asthma and allergies.
  • Symptoms were most severe in the areas of cognition and mannerisms for these children.
  • Autoimmune conditions among mothers did not affect autism symptoms in children.

 

Why it’s important: This is the first study to correlate the severity of ASD social symptoms with maternal immune activity. Future studies following mothers and children over time could further probe this link to shed light on possible interventions.


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Robot coach for Job Seekers with ASD?

By Paras Kaul and Chelsea Toledo on December 13, 2017
Robot_News Story

 

Background: People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) sometimes experience difficulty seeking employment due to differences in social and verbal skills. Early evidence suggests that leveraging robots in mock job interviews can help to train individuals with ASD for the actual experience.

 

What’s New: A recent study explored the possibility of leveraging artificial intelligence as a preparatory aid for job seekers with ASD. Fifteen participants between the ages of 18 and 25 with ASD completed a mock job application with questions about one of six jobs they chose to pursue. For five days they interviewed with either the robot or the human at the same time each day. Researchers measured salivary cortisol levels – a biomarker for stress and anxiety -  at the same time of day after each mock interview to see if there were any changes.

 

After their interviews, participants received questionnaires about their performance. Responses from participants who met with the robots indicated improvements in their self-confidence with somewhat reduced levels of stress and anxiety. While cortisol levels were lower among the individuals who interviewed with a robot, the hormone spiked on Day 2 of the exercise – a possible indication of a physical reaction needed for an individual with ASD to perform.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that the stress, anxiety, and self-confidence people with ASD experience in job interviews can be reduced with training from android robots that look like humans. Training in mock job interviews with robots may be useful in addressing social and communicative challenges that prevent the ASD population from getting jobs in the real-world. This possibility –  as well as the link between cortisol spikes and interview performance – merits further investigation via larger studies.


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Symptom Profile in Adults with Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on December 7, 2017
aging_news story

 

Background: With increasing prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the past decades, a growing number of families face concerns about caring for children with ASD as they enter adulthood. One question for families and clinicians is whether the conditions that oftentimes accompany ASD – including tantrums, seizure, sleep and gastrointestinal (GI) disorders– will persist as the children age.

 

What’s new: A recent study tracked a number of symptoms and conditions that tend to accompany ASD in older adults over time. The retrospective study leveraged 35 years of medical records belonging to 74 adults with ASD, obtained with permission from a community agency serving this group. The researchers made several important observations:

 

  • Behavioral and psychiatric symptoms (including self-harm and tantrums) decreased significantly across the board as the individuals aged.
  • Physical symptoms differed somewhat among participants older than 50 when compared to their younger peers; the older group experienced more GI symptoms, while the younger group was more likely to experience diabetes and hay fever, and to exhibit physical aggression.

Why it’s important: This study suggests that the behavioral and psychiatric symptoms observed in children with ASD may not persist as the children get older. It also points to possible differences between middle aged and older people with ASD, which merit further study.


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Study Explores Brain Activity Related to Joint Attention

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on November 9, 2017
2017_11_joint attention_2

 

Background: Imagine a man and a woman having a conversation at a coffee shop while waiting for their orders. While they are making eye contact, the woman’s gaze shifts to the counter, where the man’s coffee has now appeared. The man then turns his attention to the drink, as well. This process is called joint attention – the shared focus on an object, cued by a verbal or non-verbal signal from one individual to another. Part of the communicative differences observed in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) arises due to the lack of shared attention.

 

What’s new: On October 19, 2017, the journal Scientific Reports published a study that assessed the underlying brain activity of eleven 6 to 9 year old boys with high-functioning ASD in situations that called for joint attention. Over a period of six months, the researchers held weekly treatment sessions: the first half of the session was devoted to play-based activity, and the second half to administration of a tablet-based therapy.

 

To assess joint attention, the researchers recorded the children’s response to one therapist looking at the child and then gesturing to another therapist (responding joint attention), to having a story read by one therapist while another therapist acted the story out (initiating joint attention), and to other scenarios eliciting joint attention. In the second half of the session, they administered a tablet-based therapy game (called GOLIAH, based in the MICHELANGO framework that uses wearable technology to track brainwaves and eye movements).

 

The researchers collected data on brain activity and eye movements at the beginning and the end of the six-month study. They found that:

  • Initiating and responding joint attention have both specialized and overlapping brain activity patterns
  • There were changes in brain activity after treatment
  • The trends in brain activity following treatment corresponded with modified eye movements

 

Why it’s important: This pilot study suggests that an approach integrating neuronal and eye-tracking data can provide a clearer picture of the brain’s activity during joint attention. Future studies with a larger sample of participants could shed light on the underlying reasons that joint attention differs in people in ASD – and could lay the groundwork for therapies targeting this skill.


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