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.

Dosage and DNA Matter for Oxytocin to Work for ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on September 21, 2016
2016_09_20_oxytocin_3

 

Background: Oxytocin is a small hormone that regulates diverse physiological responses and social behaviors in mammals, including humans. The brain’s neurons recognize the hormone and start a chain of events that lead to emotion recognition and feelings of attachment. This in turn influences social bonding and related behaviors. Because of its powerful effect on the social brain, several studies have tested oxytocin as a treatment for the core symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with some success so far.

 

What’s new: A clinical trial examined two important aspects of oxytocin treatment:

  1. Dosage levels
  2. Genetic variations in the oxytocin receptor.

In a randomized clinical trial, researchers gave high- or low-dose oxytocin nose spray, or a placebo, to 20 young adults with ASD per group for 12 weeks. The high-dose oxytocin significantly helped social symptoms in males, but not females. The researchers found that high-dose oxytocin helped males focus on social regions of the face, such as the eyes, and on biological motions. Low-dose helped only those who had a specific DNA variation in the oxytocin receptor gene.

 

Why it’s important: Researchers can use the results from this clinical trial to help design future trials of oxytocin therapy for ASD. Dosage amounts and a person’s genetic background appear to be important factors to consider during future studies.


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Diabetes Drug May Balance Weight Gain from ASD Meds

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on September 6, 2016
2016_09_06_metformin_2

 

Background: Along with the hallmark symptoms of differences in communication and social behavior, many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) suffer from irritability. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, has approved two drugs - risperidone and aripiprasole (types of atypical antipsychotics) - to treat irritability associated with ASD in children. One common side effect of these drugs is significant weight gain.

 

What’s New: A new clinical trail has examined efficacy of another drug for reducing weight in children diagnosed with ASD and taking atypical antipsychotic drugs for irritability. Over the course of 16 weeks, the researchers conducted a randomized, controlled clinical trial in which they administered either a placebo or metformin - commonly used to treat diabetes - to 60 children between the ages of 6 and 17 with ASD who had experienced weight gain while taking an atypical antipsychotic drug. They found that the group taking metformin experienced significant weight loss, with reductions between 5 and 9 percent of their body mass index.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that the use of metformin could balance out the weight gain experienced by children taking atypical antipsychotics for irritability in ASD - helping them to have healthier outcomes. Future studies could determine whether this treatment is effective at maintaining weight loss, and whether it could prevent weight gain at the start of atypical antipsychotic drug treatment.

 

This study was published on August 24, 2016, in the scientific journal JAMA Psychiatry.


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Simple iPad Game May Help Identify Children with ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on August 30, 2016
2016_08_30_iPad

 

Background: More than 70 years ago, Dr. Leo Kanner described the abnormal social behaviors and movements of children with autism. Since then, many researchers have focused on the social features of the disorder. But motor control is important for many aspects of social and cognitive function. Now, several lines of evidence have shown that motor problems are present from a very young age in children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

 

What’s new: For the first time, researchers showed that hand movements on an iPad differ in children with ASD. In the study, researchers collected movement data as 37 children with ASD and 45 typically developing children played two simple iPad games. The researchers wrote a computer program that could learn from the movement data to predict if a child had ASD. Using the program, the researchers predicted ASD with up to 93% accuracy. In particular, they found that children with autism had greater contact force—how hard you press something with your finger—and larger movements with faster speed.

 

Why it’s important: To date, researchers can’t predict autism with high accuracy without expensive behavior monitoring. While the current study is only proof-of-concept, the results suggest that focusing on motor differences may allow researchers to identify early signs of ASD. A simple iPad game is an attractive option for screening or supplementing ASD diagnosis.


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Executive Functioning Linked to Autism Risk, Study Finds

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on August 25, 2016
2016_08_16_EF

 

Background: Executive functioning refers to mental processes, such as planning, reasoning, and problem-solving. A key executive function is working memory, the attention to and monitoring of an ongoing task. While existing research has suggested a link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and deficits in executive functioning, the relationship has not been extensively studied.

 

What’s New: A recent study explored the relationship between executive functioning, specifically working memory, and motor skills in infants and toddlers at high and low risk for ASD. Using established motor skill assessments alongside a toy finding task, the researchers compared overall motor skills and executive functioning among a total of 262 children—first at 12 months, and then at 24 months. Children were assessed for ASD at the later time point, with 19 of the 186 high-risk children receiving a diagnosis. As a group, children at high risk of developing ASD (established by having a sibling with the disorder) showed less improvement in executive function than their low-risk peers over time. Those deficits were associated with poorer motor skills related to the suppression of actions.

 

The journal Frontiers in Psychology published the study on July 5, 2016.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that executive functioning and motor skills are affected in all children at high risk for ASD—even those who do not ultimately develop the disorder. Because the researchers looked at children before ASD diagnosis, the study provides the earliest look at executive function in children at high risk for autism.


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Motor Deficits with ASD Linked to Right Side of Brain

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on August 10, 2016
2016_08_10_lateralization_2

 

Background: At least 80% of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have motor problems, according to recent estimates. Typical problems include delayed motor skills and trouble with coordination, such as kicking a ball or grasping small objects. In some cases, motor problems are apparent before other ASD symptoms.

 

What’s new: A new brain imaging study looked at motor control in the left and right sides of the brain in 8 to12 year old children with ASD. Researchers visualized brain activity, during a finger-tapping task, of 44 children with high-functioning autism and 80 typical, control children. Normally, regions in the left side of the brain specialize in language and motor functions. Previous work found that these regions are right-side dominant for language processing in children with ASD. Similarly, in this study researchers found brain regions that were right-side dominant for motor control too.

 

Why it’s important: This is the first study to look at left- and right-brain activity related to motor functions in children with ASD. The finding that some motor control is shifted to the right side of the brain in ASD is important given the potential for brain imaging to provide markers for early diagnosis.

 

This work was published on July 14, 2016, in the journal Molecular Autism.


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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy at School Eases Anxiety

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on August 2, 2016
2016_08_02_school CBT

 

Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by differences in communication and social behavior. Other symptoms, including anxiety, frequently accompany ASD. Researchers have estimated that as many as 40 percent of children with ASD had also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.[1] How best to treat anxiety with ASD is an area of ongoing research.

 

What’s New: A new study explores the effectiveness of a school-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on adolescents with both ASD and anxiety. Researchers assigned 35 children between the ages of 11 and 14 either to a waitlist group (control) or to receive weekly therapy sessions of 90 min each for six weeks. The treatment included Exploring Feelings, a workbook-based program analyzing the range of human emotions through CBT. They found that the 18 participants who received the intervention showed improvement in anxiety symptoms - as reported by parents, teachers and through self-evaluations - as well as marginal improvements in social responsiveness at school.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that CBT delivered at school can be beneficial in easing the anxiety that children with ASD face when attending mainstream schools. This is important because some studies show that less anxiety at school leads to improved outcomes for children with ASD.

 

[1] Anna Merrill. Anxiety and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Accessed July 31, 2016. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/anxiety-and-autism-spectrum-disorders.


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ASD Traits with Anxiety Linked to Reward Areas in Brain

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on July 26, 2016
2016_07_26_anxiety

 

Background: The brain has specific areas that help you think about rewards, such as reward anticipation or outcomes from receiving an award. This is called reward processing. Previous studies have shown that reward processing is different in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But it’s not clear if this is due to ASD alone, or conditions that sometimes occur with ASD. For example, nearly 40% of people with ASD also have anxiety.

 

What’s new: A new study published on June 28, 2016, suggests that ASD and anxiety share some regions of the brain associated with reward processing. Researchers looked at brain activity from 70 teenagers with high ASD traits and 1402 teenagers with low ASD traits. They found a unique pattern of activation in reward-related areas of the brain in those with high ASD traits combined with anxiety. But not all neuroimaging findings were shared when ASD traits and anxiety were present on their own.

 

Why it’s important: The results of this study point to patterns of brain activity related to reward processing that might link ASD with anxiety. If reproducible, these findings may allow doctors to use the patterns seen during neuroimaging to help diagnose specific subgroups of ASD, such as ASD with co-occurring conditions.


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Lab-Generated Stem Cells Hold Clues to Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo on July 19, 2016
2016_07_19_iPSC

 

Background: Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are mature adult cells that have been reprogrammed by scientists to behave like embryonic stem cells – which have the potential to become nearly any cell type in the body, including neurons. Scientists rely upon iPSCs to learn more about rare or mysterious conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by studying cells related to the condition.

 

What’s New: On June 29, 2016, the journal Molecular Neurobiology published a study using iPSCs to reveal clues about genetic expression, neural makeup and electrical activity in people with ASD. The researchers took skin cells from three male children who had ASD but no other neurodevelopmental conditions, as well as from their three male siblings without ASD. They then reprogrammed those skin cells to behave as embryonic stem cells and monitored their changes. In examining the neurons generated from these iPSCs, the researchers found differences in electrical activity and expression of genes related to signaling between cells in the participants with ASD compared to their typically developing siblings.

 

Why it’s important: This study identified 161 genes expressed differently in people with ASD, with similar features observed in the neurons of all three unrelated study participants with ASD. Future studies working with larger participant groups could further refine the cellular features differentiating cells of people with ASD during gestation, pointing to the precise process by which the disorder develops.


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ASD Risk Increases in Very Premature Babies

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on July 12, 2016
2016_07_12_premature

 

Background: Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that about 1 in 67 of 8-year-olds – or 1.5 percent – have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. Boys are about four times more likely than girls to receive a diagnosis. The disorder, usually diagnosed during childhood, is characterized by social, behavioral and communicative differences.

 

What’s New: In a new study published May 25, 2016, researchers found that the prevalence of ASD was much higher – at about 7 percent – in children who were born before 27 weeks gestation. The risk of meeting ASD diagnostic criteria was higher the earlier a child was born.

 

The researchers performed an ASD screening on 889 10-year-olds who had been born at 23-27 weeks gestation, as well as follow-up diagnostic interviews on eligible children who met the screening criteria. They found that 61 children in the eligible sample met the diagnostic criteria for ASD, resulting in a prevalence of 7.1% in the entire group. The risk of meeting ASD diagnostic criteria increased the more prematurely children were born, with a prevalence of 15% in children born at 23-24 weeks gestation. About twice as many boys than girls met the diagnostic criteria for ASD.

 

Why it’s important: The overall prevalence of ASD was much higher in this sample of children born prematurely than in general population – with a much smaller ratio of boys to girls receiving diagnoses. This study suggests that children born prematurely should receive enhanced screening for ASD. Future studies could determine the underlying factors putting premature children at a greater risk.


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Mom’s Obesity May Up ASD Risk Due to Gut Bacteria

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on June 22, 2016
2016_06_21_bacteria

 

Background: Previous research has found an association between maternal obesity and an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A key question is how a mother’s obesity could affect her child’s risk of the disorder. By using animal models, researchers can study what factors are important for the association between maternal obesity and ASD.

 

What’s new: On June 16, 2016, the journal Cell published a study examining the link between obesity and autism risk using mice. Researchers put mice on a high-fat diet (or normal diet for controls) and studied the resulting pups’ behaviors. As expected, the pups in the high-fat group lacked several social behaviors typical to mice. The researchers found that a decreased diversity of gut bacteria due to high-fat diet affected the pup’s brain’s response to oxytocin, a chemical involved in social bonding. In a series of experiments, the researchers showed that exposure to gut bacteria from mice on normal diets helped the pups born to obese mice establish normal social behaviors.

 

Why it’s important: For the first time, researchers showed that increased autism risk from maternal obesity might be due to differences in gut bacteria, at least in mice. This study adds to the growing body of evidence that the health of your gut affects the workings of your brain, and part of a healthy gut includes a diverse community of beneficial bacteria. With additional research, the relative safety and availability of probiotics makes gut health an attractive target for autism therapy, or maybe even prevention.


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Prenatal Immune System Proteins in Mom linked to ASD

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on June 14, 2016
2016_06_14_cytokines_2

 

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by social, behavioral and communicative differences and can be accompanied by intellectual disability. While genetics appear to play a strong role in the risk of having an ASD diagnosis, research has suggested that environmental factors – such as mothers’ immune activity during pregnancy – could factor into that risk, as well.

 

What’s New: On May 24, 2016, the journal Molecular Psychiatry published a study examining the relationship between a mother’s immune system biomarkers during pregnancy and children’s likelihood of having ASD. The researchers focused on mothers who had given blood samples as part of a public health study focused on early ASD indicators while pregnant, with a total of 1031 resulting children. In this group, 415 later received an ASD diagnosis, 188 had developmental delay without ASD, and 428 had typical development. The researchers further divided the ASD group into those with and without an accompanying intellectual disability and found that the mothers of the 184 children with both ASD and intellectual disability had higher levels of multiple immune-related proteins midway through the pregnancies than the mothers of children from all the other groups.

 

Why it’s important: The trends observed in proteins in expectant mothers’ blood proteins suggests that inflammation – the result of an immune response – may play a key role in the development of ASD with intellectual disability. Furthermore, these differences may help researchers to better understand sub-types of ASD.


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Newborns at Risk for Autism Differ in Social Preferences

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on June 9, 2016
2016_06_09_visual_2

 

Background: Newborn babies pay close attention to relevant social cues, such as a mother’s face. Some researchers hypothesize that the social preferences typically seen in infancy are impaired in autism, leading to an underdevelopment of “social brain” networks.

 

What’s new: On May 20, 2016, Scientific Reports published a study that examined social preferences in newborns at high risk for autism. The researchers showed social and non-social images to 13 newborns with high risk of autism and 16 newborns with low risk of autism—all between 6 and 10 days old. Researchers scored each newborn on how much he or she looked at the social versus non-social images. According to the report, the newborns at high risk for autism looked significantly more at the non-social images than the low-risk infants did.

 

Why it’s important: This is the first study to show that babies at high risk for autism show diminished social attention as early as 6 days after birth. Future research could include a larger number of infants and follow up to see if the high-risk infants receive an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis.


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New Evidence Contradicts Popular Autism Theory

By Anjali Sarkar, PhD on June 2, 2016
2016_06_02multisensory-integration

 

Background: In neuroscience, a “simple task” involves activity in one or a few brain regions while a “complex task” involves the coordination of multiple regions in the brain. According to some neuroscientists, autism is marked by superior simple task performance but poor complex task performance.

 

This observation has led to a theory that diverse areas of brain activity fail to function as a whole in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), leading to the social and behavioral symptoms common to the disorder. A specialized version of this theory focuses on problems with multisensory integration, how the brain combines information from all five senses. For example, when children with ASD are around noisy distractions, they tend to perform poorly on tasks that require attention, according to previous research.

 

What’s new: A recent study shows that children with ASD have intact multisensory integration. The researchers found that high-functioning adolescents with ASD performed as well as typical adolescents on multisensory tasks that combined visual sensory inputs from the eye and balance sensory inputs from the inner ear.

 

Why it’s important: The results of this study contradict the popular notions of defective multisensory integration in individuals with ASD. Instead, the study reveals an increased sensitivity to sensory inputs, likely due to problems with lesser understanding of the world. Because participants of this study are from the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, future studies could test if children across the spectrum have proper multisensory integration.


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ESDM Most Effective in Young Children, Study Finds

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on May 25, 2016
2016_05_25_ESDM

 

Background: The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) is an intervention designed for children 12 to 60 months of age with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A team of trained professionals including therapists, teachers, childcare workers and psychologists deliver this program; parents receive guidance from the therapy team as well. ESDM aims to help children gain social skills and engage in interpersonal relationships. It uses child-directed methods like simultaneous movement, rhythm, and reciprocal behavior.

 

What’s New: On March 28, 2016, the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published a study exploring the effects of ESDM in children of different ages. The researchers administered diagnostic questionnaires to assess verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as ASD severity, in 32 children between 18 and 48 months of age and in 28 children between 48 and 62 months of age. Prior to the questionnaires, the children participated in ESDM for a year. While all participants improved non-verbal communication, the younger group had significantly greater improvement on the verbal diagnostic questionnaire. None of the children reduced their ASD severity scores.

 

Why it’s important: This study supports the basic principal underlying ESDM – that early intervention is most effective, especially in achieving gains in verbal communications. Future studies could compare gains with a control group not receiving ESDM therapy to more thoroughly evaluate program effectiveness.


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Cheaper Behavioral Therapy Studied for Low-Income Countries

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on May 17, 2016
2015_05_17_PASS

 

Background: Children with autism often work with a therapist to improve communication and social skills. Sometimes therapists give parents strategies for interacting with their child. This is the case with the Preschool Autism Communication Trial (PACT).

 

During PACT therapy, professional speech and language therapists teach parents how to adjust their communication and social interactions to the needs of each child. Previous studies have shown an increased cost of therapy with PACT, but no significant difference in overall outcome to warrant the cost. In 2015, a collaboration of researchers in India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom modified the PACT therapy for children with autism living in low- to middle-income countries.

 

What’s new: Researchers tested the modified PACT-based therapy, called PASS (Parent-mediated intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in South Asia) in India and Pakistan. The researchers randomly divided 65 children with autism between the ages of 2 and 9 into two groups. One group received 12 sessions of PASS plus treatment as usual, while the other group continued their typical activities during that time.

 

During PASS sessions, a health worker and parents watched video tapes of the parents and child playing together and discussed strategies to improve the child’s skillsets. The researchers found that PASS improved the coordination and initiation of social interactions between parents and children with autism in a low-income setting.

 

Why it’s important: The authors report that this is the first rigorous trial to test an autism therapy in a low- to middle-income country. While PASS showed important positive outcomes, it also linked to decreased shared attention between parents and children. This previously unreported effect of a PACT-based therapy adds to conflicting reports of its effectiveness for autism.


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Cutting-edge Autism Therapy May Lessen Problem Behaviors

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on May 10, 2016
2016_05_10_TMS

 

Background: Have you ever wondered what controls your heart rate? The autonomic nervous system controls all non-voluntary movements in your body, like the beating of your heart and contractions of your stomach and intestines. In some individuals with autism, the autonomic nervous system doesn’t work properly. This may lead to a less intense response to social stimuli. Some researchers believe that activating the autonomic nervous system may help individuals with autism respond to social cues in a more typical way.

 

What’s new: A cutting-edge procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may help children with autism lessen hyperactivity, inappropriate speech, and repetitive behaviors by adjusting their autonomic nervous system activity, according to a study published March, 2016. The researchers used repetitive magnetic fields to excite neurons in a part of the brain behind the forehead in 33 children with autism. The children each participated in 12 weekly sessions of TMS. During the treatment, the childrens’ autonomic nervous system measurements improved, and following treatment, several behavior scores got better.

 

Why it’s important: Compared to previous studies of TMS, this study increased the number of children treated and allowed children from all severities of the autism spectrum. The positive results of the study lead the way for researchers to create randomized, controlled clinical trials to test if TMS treatments work better than other therapies.


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Eye-Tracking Tool May Detect ASD in Adults

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on May 3, 2016
Gazefinder_4

 

Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by differences in communication, social interaction and behavior. A key indicator for ASD in infants and toddlers is abnormal gaze, as people with ASD tend to focus on different objects or movements than their typically developing peers. For example, someone with ASD would be less likely to make eye contact with another person as he or she spoke.

 

What’s New: On March 23, 2016, the journal Molecular Autism explored the use of an eye-tracking system called Gazefinder, which was developed to detect ASD in toddlers. The researchers showed scenes from movies to a study group of 26 males with ASD between the ages of 15 and 41 and a comparable group of individuals with typical development. Measuring the time participants’ eyes were fixated on a particular object or motion, researchers found that the ASD group spent significantly less time focused on socially significant objects or movements. For example, when looking at the face of a person sitting silently, the ASD group was more likely to focus on the mouth, as opposed to the typically developing group, who focused on the eyes.

 

Why it’s important: Atypical gaze is already a screening indicator for ASD in infants and toddlers. However, this study provided a concrete measure to distinguish much older people with ASD from their typically developing peers. Future research could explore the efficacy of this technique in females and in older children.


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Responsive Play as a Therapy for Autism

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on April 26, 2016
2016_04_26_JASPER

 

Background: Play is critical for the social and emotional growth of children. In a type of interaction called responsive play, parents follow the lead of the child, reacting to the child’s interests and movements rather than guiding the direction of activity. Several studies have found that responsive play may improve the social engagement between children with autism and their caretakers.

 

What’s new: In the May 2016 issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers published a study testing the effectiveness of a responsive therapy called JASPER, which stands for Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement, and Regulation. In the study, 85 children with autism and their parents were randomly assigned to participate in JASPER or a parent-only, discussion based training session. Each program consisted of weekly one-hour training sessions for ten weeks.

 

At a six month follow-up visit, compared to parents who received parent-only education, the parents from the JASPER group had increased responsive behaviors to their children, and their children spent more time jointly engaged.

 

Why it’s important: This study links increases in a child’s social engagement to improvements in a parent’s responsive behavior following JASPER therapy. Previous studies of JASPER focused only on the improvements in the child’s engagement.


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Non-invasive Brain Monitoring, a Potential ASD Therapy

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on April 19, 2016
2016_04_19_EEG_2b

 

Background: Among the treatments being considered for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), neurofeedback shows an indication of brain activity in real time, which helps people learn to regulate how their brains are functioning. The most common form of neurofeedback is analyzed using electroencephalography (EEG), which involves placement of electrodes on the scalp to measure changes in electrical activity within the brain. This process is frequently used to diagnose epilepsy.

 

What’s new: On January 14, 2016, the journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience published a study exploring EEG’s potential as a treatment for ASD, with a focus on the relationship between different frequency bands generated as a result of recording specific waveform oscillations in the brain’s activity. Researchers used the technology to monitor the brain activity of 18 participants with high-functioning ASD. After 18 weekly EEG sessions, they found a reduction in EEG characteristics associated with ASD in the brain’s prefrontal cortex – specifically those related to focused attention. They also saw improvement in lethargy and social withdrawal, as measured in an established questionnaire that was administered to parents at the beginning and end of the study.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that using neurofeedback from EEG analysis is a potential therapy for high-functioning children with ASD. Future research could hone in on specific techniques that compare relationships between frequency bands for the most effective method of treatment.


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Robots and Rhythm May Help Motor Difficulties in Autism

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on April 14, 2016
2016_04_12_human motor

 

Background: Over 50 percent of children with autism have problems with gross and fine motor activities. Motor skills are often associated with playing sports or learning how to write, but they’re also important for imitation and synchronized movements. This social aspect of motor development is an important focus for autism research.

 

What’s new: On December 17, 2015, the journal Autism Research and Treatment published a study comparing motor performance following several therapies for autism. The researchers divided 36 children with Autism Spectrum Disorder into three groups—rhythm, robotic, and standard-of-care.

 

Each group received training for eight weeks, consisting of four sessions per week. The rhythm and robotic groups participated in social, whole-body movement games. In contrast, the standard-of-care group focused on tabletop activities that promoted fine motor skills, social communication, and academics.

 

The researchers found that children in the rhythm and robotic groups showed greater improvement on body coordination and movement synchrony, while the standard-of-care group improved their fine motor control.

 

Why it’s important: This is the first study to look at the effects of robotic and rhythm training compared to standard-of-care activities on social aspects of motor development using rigorous scientific methods. The results suggest that a combination of therapy is important for improving the range of motor skills needed for full functioning.


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Therapy with Robots May Help Social Skills in ASD

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on April 6, 2016
2016_04_05_lowcost robot

 

Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by differences in socialization, communication, and behavior. Novel approaches, such as robot-based interaction programs, are emerging as cutting-edge technologies for autism therapy.

 

What’s New: A recent issue of Autonomous Robot featured a study exploring whether incorporating robots into existing ASD therapies could further improve performance on assessments. The researchers administered speech therapy over a period of six weeks to 11 children between the ages of three and six with both ASD and language delay. Eight of those children also received interventions twice a week for 30 minutes each session with a robot invented by the researchers called Child Centered Adaptive Robot for Learning Environments, or CHARLIE, which could imitate the children’s movements and engage in games. They found that the group who interacted with CHARLIE showed greater improvement in receptive language, play and leisure scores on a commonly used assessment at the end of the study.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that interactions with robots may improve interactions with other people in children with ASD. Future research could further explore that possibility with a larger sample of children representing different ages and ASD severity.


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Language Delay in ASD Linked to Brain Symmetry

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on March 29, 2016
2016_03_29_assymetry

 

Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) encompasses a broad array of conditions characterized by differences in socialization, communication, and behavior. One area where people with ASD can differ widely from one another is in language acquisition. Some individuals face severe delays in speech while others progress more typically.

 

What’s New: The January 2016 issue of Human Brain Mapping featured a study that explored the symmetry between brain hemispheres in individuals with or without language delay – defined as uttering one’s first words after 24 months of age or first phrases after 33 months of age. The researchers performed structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on 136 right-handed men between the ages of 18 and 43 (67 with ASD and 69 with typical development). Participants in the ASD group had reduced asymmetry between several brain areas across the left and right sides of the brain, which was most pronounced in those with language delay and/or abnormal social functioning.

 

Why it’s important: This structural asymmetry of the brain could eventually help clinicians diagnose and understand specific subgroups of ASD. Future research could examine the brain symmetry of women and/or left-handed individuals with ASD.


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Study Probes Normalized Symptoms of Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on March 22, 2016
2016_03_22_lost diagnosis

 

Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is generally characterized by differences in socialization, communication, and behavior. Research has shown differences in brain activity underlying these traits. However, certain individuals have been shown to “grow out” of ASD symptoms, with social, communicative, and behavioral traits mirroring those of their typically developing peers. Little is known about this phenomenon—do individuals experience suppression of atypical brain activity, or does the brain establish compensatory mechanisms?

 

What’s New: On December 2, 2015, the journal NeuroImage: Clinical published a study exploring the underlying brain activity of people with ASD whose symptoms became normalized later in life. The researchers administered a sentence comprehension task while performing brain scans on 59 participants between the ages of 8 and 21 (23 with high-functioning ASD, 20 with typical development, and 16 who no longer met the criteria for an ASD diagnosis). They found similar activity between the ASD and normalized ASD groups, with enhanced compensatory brain activation in the group with normalized symptoms.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that people with ASD do not “grow out” of the disorder, as their brain activity more closely mirrors that of people with ASD than those with typical development when processing language. Instead, the brain may compensate by increasing activity in language processing areas of the brain. Future studies could investigate patterns of brain activity when completing other types of tasks, and additional research may reveal the role of different types of therapy in ameliorating ASD symptoms.


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Diagnosis Differences in Adopted Population with ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on March 15, 2016
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Background: Previous studies have linked adoption to general neurodevelopmental risks, but little is known about adoption as a risk factor for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) specifically.

 

What’s new: In the February 2016 issue of the journal Pediatrics, researchers published a study exploring the differences in ASD diagnosis between adopted and non-adopted individuals. Using data in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network, the researchers analyzed the cognitive ability, diagnosis, behavioral problems, and sleep habits for 163 adopted children and 5624 non-adopted children on the spectrum. They found that adopted children had increased:

 

  • Attention problems
  • Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder diagnosis
  • Use of psychotropic medications
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Use of sleep medications

 

Why it’s important: This is the largest study of adopted individuals with autism to date. These results highlight the need for additional research in this unique subgroup, with a focus on factors associated with adoption—such as birth parent history, age at time of adoption, and history of institutionalization.


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Sleep Meds May Make Behavior Worse in Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on March 8, 2016
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Background: Sleep disturbances are a common occurrence in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers have estimated that between 50 and 80 percent of people with the disorder experience difficulty sleeping.

 

What’s New: The February issue of Pediatrics included a study exploring the frequency of sleep difficulties and the use of sleep medications in children with autism. The researchers analyzed questionnaires from parents of 1518 children between the ages of four and ten who had been diagnosed with ASD. They found that – while only 30 percent of the children had a diagnosed sleep disorder – the scores of more than 70 percent of the children on a sleep habits questionnaire indicated significant sleep problems. In addition, the researchers found that the daytime behavior of the nearly 400 children prescribed sleep medications was reported to be worse than that of the children not taking sleep medications.

 

Why it’s important: This study underscores the need to screen for sleep problems during the diagnostic process for ASD. Future studies could investigate the underlying factors influencing the effects of sleep medications on this population to develop evidence-based recommendations for sleep treatments.


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Link Found Between Neural Stem Cell Division and Autism

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on March 2, 2016
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Background: The brain grows, in part, through the activity of neural stem cells—a cell population that replenishes itself through cell division. When a stem cell divides, it has three choices. It can make two new stem cells, a stem cell and a new cell type (such as a neuron), or two new cell types.

 

What’s new: An error in neural stem cell division may be at the root of neurodevelopmental problems seen in some metabolic disorders, according to a new study published February 9, 2016, in Cell Reports. Researchers used mice to study if neural stem cell division requires the autism risk gene TMLHE—which is an important contributor to metabolism and energy production in the powerhouse of the cell.

 

They found that TMLHE is required to maintain the proper balance between neural stem cell self-renewal versus the production of different cell types. The researchers showed that providing TMLHE-deficient stem cells with carnitine, a normal product of TMLHE activity, restored the balance of neural stem cell divisions.

 

Why it’s important: This study provides a potential mechanism for how a known autism risk gene leads to a type of autism associated with a metabolic disorder. Most importantly, the findings suggest an avenue for treating the disorder during embryonic development with carnitine, a common nutritional supplement. While it may be tempting to get excited, this is a far off goal, as many—many—additional studies are needed before attempting to study this in humans.


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