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.

Study Explores Brain Activity Related to Joint Attention

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on November 9, 2017
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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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Tablet-Based Autism Research Reveals Social Insights

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on October 24, 2017
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Background: Babies are drawn to sights and sounds of the social world. A mother’s voice, a friendly face, the sound of laughter—all of these social experiences are important for a baby’s development. In toddlers and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the amount of attention given to social matters is reduced. But to what extent, and at what ages, social interest differs is an active area of study. Newer technologies, such as tablet computers, have opened the door for novel ways to look at social preferences in children with ASD.


What’s new: On June 21, 2017, the journal Scientific Reports published a tablet-based study of children’s desire for social rewards. The researchers enrolled 63 children, ages 14 to 68 months, into the study (25 children with ASD and 38 typically developing children). Each child pressed buttons on a tablet screen that caused social or non-social pictures to appear. As the children played with the tablet, the researchers recorded the children’s social behaviors, such as smiles, vocalizations, and eye contact.


The children with ASD pressed buttons for non-social images at a higher rate than for social images, whereas the typically developing children lacked a preference for social versus non-social. For both groups of children, increased social image selection linked to an increase in social behaviors while playing.


Why it’s important: Many past studies of social interest in children with ASD relied on older children and passive viewing of images. This unique, tablet-based approach allowed researchers to test social reward-seeking in a younger group of children. The results are consistent with earlier findings that children with ASD favor non-social stimuli.

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Babies with Autism View Social Scenes Differently

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on September 25, 2017
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Background: Humans are fundamentally social creatures. Starting in infancy, faces are critical for communicating; even before acquiring most basic skills, babies learn to “read” the emotions of others by watching their eyes and mouths. The brain's social pathway attaches meaning to social signals, motivates us to respond to social signals, and ultimately guides our social behavior.


What’s new: On July 20, 2017, the journal Nature published a study exploring the basis for how young children with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD) processed such social information. The researchers tracked the eye movements of a total of 250 typically developing toddlers—including 82 monozygotic twins, 84 dizygotic twins, and 84 non-siblings—as they watched videos depicting social situations. They found distinct patterns in the eye tracking results based on the children’s genetics: compared to dizygotic twins, identical twins within the sample had very similar eye movements, especially when it came to their focus on eyes and mouths. Furthermore, the researchers compared eye-tracking data from 88 children with ASD. They found that the characteristic eye movement patterns in identical twins—the focus on eyes and mouths—were markedly reduced in children with ASD.


Why it’s important: In a series of well-designed experiments using eye-tracking measures, the authors of this study shed light on the genetic underpinnings of social information seeking in developing children. The researchers also provide evidence regarding how this trait may be altered in autism.

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Extra Stable Brain Activity Patterns Found in ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD and Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on August 14, 2017
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Background: Even at rest, the brain never really rests. Brain cells, or neurons, use chemicals to shoot information at lightening speed throughout the brain all the time. This brain activity occurs in special patterns that are related to the different functions of the brain. Scientists think that measuring patterns of brain activity during a resting state can offer clues about why some people have autism.


What’s new: On July 5, 2017, the journal Nature Communications released a study comparing resting brain activity in typically developing individuals versus their peers with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers looked at brain imaging data taken in a resting state from a total of 50 male individuals between the ages of 18 and 39.


The researchers used a special type of mathematical formula to make brain activity look like peaks and valleys on a topographical map. They found that individuals with ASD had differently sized peaks and valleys as compared to their typically developing peers. This particular method of analyzing brain activity allowed autism identification—based solely on brain scans—with about 85% accuracy. The researchers also found a correlation between the peak and valley sizes and the severity of autism symptoms.


Why it’s important: The study is an important step forward in establishing ways to extract information from brain scans, which in this case was a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan. The findings of the study suggest a stability of brain activity pattern that differs between typically developing individuals and those with autism spectrum disorder. These differences may one day aid autism diagnosis or indicate severity along the spectrum, but additional investigation is required.

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Autism Linked to Disproportionate Gene Inheritance

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. and Sharmila Banerjee-Basu, Ph.D. on June 30, 2017


Background: Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is highly heritable. For instance, children who have a sibling with an ASD diagnosis are far more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder themselves than children whose siblings don’t have ASD. While that trend and other findings have pointed to genetic risk factors contributing to ASD, it is not yet clear how the inheritance and expression of genes leads to the disorder.


What’s New: On May 15, 2017, the journal Nature Genetics published a study exploring genetic architecture underlying ASD. In this study, the authors analyzed data from 6,454 families with at least one child with a diagnosis of ASD. The team of scientists calculated common polygenic risk for ASD, educational attainment, and schizophrenia for all genotyped family members. They found that polygenic risk—variations in multiple genes associated with the condition—was significantly over-transmitted to affected children but not to unaffected siblings. Moreover, the common polygenic variants contributed to ASD risk even in children with damaging autism-associated genetic change that is not present in either parent.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that autism risk is additive. Both common and rare variants comprise the genetic architecture in ASD. Children with ASD also over-inherited genetic variants related to schizophrenia and educational attainment indicating their positive association.

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Future Autism Diagnosis Linked to Early Medical Conditions

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on May 30, 2017
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Background: Early intervention for autism leads to fewer autism symptoms later in childhood. Unfortunately, autism diagnosis usually doesn’t occur until after three years of age. To improve time to therapy, researchers are looking for clues to diagnose autism as early as possible.


What’s new: In a large medical record study of 3,911 children with autism, researchers found that 38 medical conditions were associated with a future autism diagnosis. Medical conditions that showed the strongest link to autism included:


  • Language delays
  • Learning and cognitive disorders
  • Global delays (significant delay in two or more areas of development)
  • Motor delays
  • Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Epilepsy and recurrent seizures
  • Disorders of the central nervous system

A combination of language delay with global delay most strongly correlated with an autism diagnosis. In total, the researchers identified 14 combinations of medical conditions that were associated with a future autism diagnosis.


Why it’s important: This study offers evidence that early life medical conditions could help doctors identify children who need close follow-up for autism assessment. Many of these medical conditions appear a year or more before autism symptoms become apparent.

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