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.

Therapy Using Parent Training Linked to Improved ASD Symptoms

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on November 28, 2016


Background: The typical symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – which include differences in behavior, communication, and social interaction – usually appear in early childhood. Multiple longitudinal studies have suggested that children who are exposed to early interventions for ASD experience improved outcomes as they develop.


What’s New: On October 25, 2016, The Lancet published a study evaluating the long-term effectiveness of a therapy based on communication training for parents of young children with ASD. This work is a follow up of an earlier study of the Preschool Autism Communication Trial (PACT). Between 2008 and 2009, the researchers administered PACT training to parents of 77 children between the ages of 2 and 4 who had ASD. The recent follow-up study showed that the children whose parents had undergone 12 sessions of the training experienced a greater reduction in scores related to symptom severity than the 75 children whose parents did not undergo the training. The training allowed parents to watch videotaped interactions of themselves with their children alongside a therapist, who provided tailored support.


Why it’s important: This is the first follow-up to a randomized and controlled study that shows an early intervention, in this case PACT, can decrease ASD symptom severity over the long term. Future evaluations could determine whether a parent-centered training like PACT should be considered a standard intervention for children with ASD – and especially for those with severe symptoms.

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Mother’s Body Mass Index Linked to Child’s Autism Risk

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on October 7, 2016


Background: Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is characterized by behavioral, communicative, and social differences that usually appear in early childhood. Research has pointed to both genetic and environmental factors underpinning the disorder. A number of environmental factors such as advanced parental age, exposure to toxicants, and maternal health conditions during pregnancy have been associated with a higher risk for having a child with autism.


What’s New: On September 30, 2016, Scientific Reports published a meta-analysis (an analysis of a series of studies) exploring whether mothers’ body mass index, or BMI, could be a risk factor for ASD. The researchers conducted a comprehensive review of seven previously published studies – examining data from more than 500,000 participants, 8,400 of whom had ASD. They found that mothers’ BMI before or during pregnancy was associated with the risk of ASD in offspring, with the highest risk among children of overweight (28%) and obese mothers (36%).


Why it’s important: This study suggests the recent increase in ASD may be related to an increase in obesity rates. Future studies could pinpoint the exact relationship between maternal BMI and ASD risk.


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Dosage and DNA Matter for Oxytocin to Work for ASD

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


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


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


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


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


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.

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ASD Traits with Anxiety Linked to Reward Areas in Brain

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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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