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.

Macaque Monkey Model Exhibits Autism-Like Behaviors

By Anjali A. Sarkar, Ph.D. on February 2, 2016
monkey model_3


Background: Mutations in the MECP2 gene cause Rett syndrome, a brain disorder with autistic features that affects girls almost exclusively. However, extra copies of the MeCP2 gene results in core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder mostly in boys. Although mouse models of Rett syndrome exist, investigations on the role of additional MeCP2 copies using the mouse model have proven to be difficult as mice with excess MeCP2 protein fail to develop symptoms reminiscent of autism.


What's new: On January 25, 2016, the journal Nature published a study on the effects of excess MeCP2 gene products in the monkey brain. Neuroscientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai generated genetically engineered macaque monkeys that expressed multiple copies of the human MeCP2 gene, specifically in the neural tissue of the brain. When compared to a control group, the monkeys with extra MeCP2 showed the signature behavioral traits of autism: increased frequency of repetitive circular locomotion, increase anxiety, reduced social interaction, and relatively weak signs of cognitive impairment.


Why it’s important: This study introduces a new macaque monkey model mimicking human MECP2 duplication syndrome that includes core features of autism. Given the close lineage, monkeys may offer an improved model for autism spectrum disorders by opening-up novel therapeutic possibilities.

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Follow-up of symptoms associated with autism

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


Background: Previous studies have shown that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is frequently associated with a number of health conditions in addition to the core symptoms of social communications and repetitive behavior. The rate and time course of these co-occurring symptoms, such as sleep disturbances or gastrointestinal (GI) problems, have not been fully analyzed.


What’s new: In the February 2016 issue of Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, researchers from the National University of Ireland published a two-year follow-up study to examine co-occurring conditions in 56 children and adolescents with ASD. They found that sleep problems and GI symptoms persisted in about 91 percent and 84 percent of the participants, respectively. High rates of sleep problems co-occurred in individuals with bloating, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and/or constipation.


The researchers found that almost 93 percent of the participants had a family history of autoimmune disorders. Individuals with a history of thyroid disorders had greater GI symptoms, while a history of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease associated with depressive symptoms, repetitive behavior, and sleep duration.


Why it’s important: This is the first study to investigate several comorbid conditions over two years. The results suggest a link between autoimmune disorders, GI symptoms, and sleep problems in children and adolescents with ASD, but additional research is needed to make any conclusions.

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Possible Blood Biomarker for ASD in Children Found

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on January 19, 2016
blood biomarker


Background: Early intervention in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is known to improve behavioral outcomes. Biomarkers – such as proteins in the blood or patterns of activity in the brain – may help identify children with the disorder earlier in infancy, allowing for earlier intervention. Currently, physicians do not have reliable biomarkers to use in the clinic to predict the onset of ASD in children.


What’s New: On January 14, 2016, the journal Scientific Reports published a study that detailed a possible biomarker in the blood of children with ASD. The researchers compared the blood serum from 74 boys between 2 and 10 years old with ASD, 60 of their typically developing peers, and 53 adult males between 40 and 75 years old. Using a large collection of synthetic chemical chains made in the laboratory, they found that one chain in particular, called ASD1, bound to a serum antibody with far greater frequency in typically developing boys than in those with ASD. Interestingly, the results with the ASD children resembled those of the older male group. This difference in activity allowed the researchers to identify ASD cases with 66 percent accuracy.


Why it’s important: This study builds on previous research that suggests that the immune system is different in people with ASD. Immune activity in children with ASD may resemble that of older individuals. According to the authors, measurements with ASD1, in combination with other blood-based measurements (such as hormone levels), could lead to a blood test for ASD with higher predictive accuracy for clinical use.

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Children of Blind Parents Reveal Clues About Eye Contact

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on January 12, 2016


Background: Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have been known to avoid eye contact. Studies have demonstrated that children who eventually receive a diagnosis can display differences in eye contact as early as six months of age. Researchers have hypothesized that this tendency could impact the development of areas in the brain related to social behaviors.


What’s New: On November 19, 2015, the journal Current Biology published a study of sighted children born to blind parents. The researchers used eye-tracking technology to explore how 14 infants between the ages of 6 and 10 months engaged with adult faces, repeating the experiment 6 months later. When compared to a group of infants born to sighted parents, children born to blind parents paid less attention to adults’ eyes – as seen in similarly aged children with ASD. However, the children of blind parents demonstrated otherwise typical development, and even excelled at visual attention and memory.


Why it’s important: This study shows that typical children adjust their behavior as they adapt to their environments and social cues. If a parent uses eye movements, rather than words and gestures, to signal important objects, then a child will focus more on the parent’s eyes. Future studies could address if core ASD traits stem from a child’s inability to adapt to his or her early environment appropriately.

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Lost Diagnoses May Affect Autism Prevalence Estimates

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on December 30, 2015
lost diagnosis


Background: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 American children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a number based on nation-wide surveys and the review of medical and/or educational records. When public health professionals update survey design, the estimated autism prevalence often shifts to a different number. The actual prevalence is less defined than it may seem.


What’s New: On October 20, 2015, the journal Autism published a study exploring the possibility that estimates of ASD’s prevalence may be influenced by “lost diagnoses” – meaning that experts count children who previously had a diagnosis for autism that was later reconsidered. The researchers compared national survey data and retrospective parental interviews from 1420 children between the ages of 6 and 17 with ASD against those from 187 of their peers who had lost their diagnoses.


They found that about one in eight children ever diagnosed with ASD eventually lost the diagnosis, and that three-fourths of those diagnoses changed based on new information from doctors. According to the parental interviews, other reasons included:


  • Initial diagnosis of ASD enabled the child to receive needed services, but the child never had ASD
  • Treatment helped the condition go away
  • Misdiagnosed after not testing properly
  • Disagreement with the doctor’s diagnosis

Children with lost diagnoses were less likely to have parents concerned early on about their communication, behavior and social abilities, and were also less likely to have received their initial diagnosis from an ASD specialist.


Why it’s important: This study highlights the imprecise nature of autism estimates by pointing out several reasons for a lost ASD diagnosis. Future research could determine whether diagnoses made by non-specialists are overinflating the estimates of ASD prevalence.

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Hormone Disorder in Mom Increases ASD Risk in Child

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on December 11, 2015


Background: Given the increasing recognition of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the last decade, researchers are investigating its biological causes with intense scrutiny. One line of research suggests that excess male sex hormones in the womb may affect brain development in the baby—creating what some term “extreme male brain.” Previous hormone studies, however, have been small in scale, and their findings have been inconsistent.


What’s new: On December 8, 2015, the journal Molecular Psychiatry published a study examining the role of hormone imbalance during pregnancy in ASD risk. The researchers examined Swedish medical records of 23,748 children with ASD aged 4 to 17 years and 208,796 matched controls. They found that women diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)—a disorder in which the ovaries produce too much of the male sex hormone called androgen—are 59 percent more likely than women without PCOS to have a child with ASD.


Why it’s important: This study supports the need to further examine the role that hormone imbalance during pregnancy plays in ASD risk. Based on this study alone, we cannot determine if PCOS in the mother increases ASD risk due to hormone exposure in the womb or because common genetic pathways influence the development of both PCOS and ASD.

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Survey Redesign Raises ASD Prevalence Estimate

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on December 1, 2015
survey design


Background: The National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) is a national, parent-reported household survey, which includes questions about lifetime autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. For several years, the NHIS reported a lower rate of ASD in the United States compared to other major surveys at the time. To what extent survey design, wording, and presentation affect the reporting of ASD diagnosis is an important area of investigation.


What’s new: Survey question wording and order have a significant impact on report rates for ASD, according to a new National Health Statistics Report. Researchers compared the ASD rate between the 2011-2013 NHIS and the 2014 NHIS, which included several changes in questions related to ASD. The 2014 survey included a stand-alone question about ASD diagnosis placed before questions about other developmental disabilities, and the survey language included terminology such as autism, Asperger’s disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder. With these changes, the reported ASD rate climbed from 1 in 80 to 1 in 45 for children ages 3 to 17 years. The 2014 survey included approximately 13,000 participants.


Why it’s important: This study highlights the importance of survey design for accurate estimates of ASD prevalence. Based on the short time period between the 2011-2013 and 2014 surveys, the authors state that an environmental factor is unlikely to have caused the dramatic increase in ASD prevalence between the two surveys.

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Brain Organization Ages Differently in Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on November 24, 2015
brain hubs


Background: The human brain is comprised of an intricate network of interconnected regions. Of the hundreds of regions in the human brain, there exists highly connected central regions--or hubs--that link sparsely populated peripheral regions of the brain. Known as the “rich club,” these areas are thought to play key role in integrating information across the brain. Research has suggested that their connectivity may be different in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).


What’s New: On November 5, 2015, the journal Scientific Reports explored how organization of the rich club hubs differed in people with ASD versus those with typical development as they aged. The researchers compared brain connectivity data of children between the ages of 9 and 13 to that of a group of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18. The results of their analysis indicated that organization of rich club hubs in the brain increased as the 36 typically developing children and adolescents aged, but that the same progress wasn’t observed in the 45 children and adolescents with ASD.


Why it’s important: This study adds to the findings suggesting that rich club organization underlies cognition, and that dysfunction in that organization could play a role in certain neurodevelopmental disorders. Future studies could illuminate the precise role of rich club organization and pinpoint how puberty affects its development.

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Neural Basis of Noise Overload in ASD Explained

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on November 17, 2015
2015_11_sound adaptation


Background: About 90 percent of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience some form of sensory-related symptoms, such as over or under sensitivity to sights, sounds, and even tastes (reviewed in Geschwind, 2009). Researchers have hypothesized that an abnormal adaptation to sensory stimuli may underlie the social and communication difficulties seen in ASD.


What’s new: On November 5, 2015, Scientific Reports published a study examining loudness adaptation in 20 adults with ASD and 20 neurotypical individuals. The researchers found that adults with ASD were slower and less able to adapt to a continuous, low-level sound than neurotypical adults.


In the study, the participants listened to a soft, constant sound for several minutes and recorded the perceived volume of the sound at specific time intervals. While the neurotypical individuals said the sound decreased by about 50 percent in volume over time—even though the volume of the sound was unchanged—adults with ASD perceived a mere 20 percent reduction. In contrast, adaptation to loud sounds with intermittent disruptions was similar between neurotypical adults and those with ASD.


Why it’s important: The adaptation to constant, quiet sounds is thought to involve a different part of the brain than adaptation to loud, interrupted sounds—think of the hum of a refrigerator versus a fire alarm. Therefore, this is the first study to show that noise overload in ASD may stem from a neural inability to adapt to certain sound types. Interestingly, for individuals with ASD who reported using coping strategies, their adaptive responses were closer to neurotypical individuals.

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How People with ASD See the World Differently

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on November 10, 2015
ASD Gaze_3


Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects three major and inter-related areas: communication, social interaction, and behavior. Research has shown that people with the disorder read faces and other social cues differently than their typically developing peers, which could contribute to the observed behavioral symptoms in ASD.


What’s New: On November 4, 2015, the journal Neuron published a study exploring how general gaze – not just at faces – may differ in individuals with ASD. The researchers showed 700 naturalistic images capturing common daily scenarios to 20 people with ASD and average IQ. Using an eye-tracking device to follow their gaze, they found that, when compared to 19 peers with typical development, the ASD group spent more time focused on the center of an image, even if there was no object in the image’s center. They also found that the ASD group took longer to focus on faces in the images, but were quicker than their typically developing peers to focus on mechanical objects.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that differences in gaze observed in people with ASD is not limited to reading faces, but represents a larger perceptive difference. Larger studies are needed to further define these differences in atypical visual processing in ASD. The eye tracking methodology holds much promise as a non-behavioral early ASD diagnostic marker.

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Four Key Trends Found for ASD Traits and Recurrence

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on November 5, 2015


Background: Several studies suggest that in families containing one or more individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), non-diagnosed members have increased presence of ASD-related traits. However, little is known about the prevalence or nature of these traits among the siblings in families where multiple members have ASD.


What’s new: On October 27, 2015, the journal Molecular Autism published a study exploring autism symptom pattern and recurrence in families with children on the spectrum. The researchers compared data for over 5500 siblings from the Autism Interactive Network. By examining single versus multiple incidence of ASD in a family, as well as the affected gender, the researchers discovered four key trends:


  1. Non-diagnosed children who have more than one sibling with autism possess an increased and specific pattern of autistic traits—namely resistance to change and restricted interests.
  2. Children with ASD from multiple incidence families are less symptomatic than those from single incidence families.
  3. A history of language delay with atypical speech is a risk factor for both social and restrictive/repetitive behavior symptoms in children not diagnosed with ASD from single or multiple incidence families.
  4. Males who are born into a multiple incidence family including at least one female with ASD are at a greater risk for possessing autistic traits. Likewise, families containing any number of females with ASD have greater recurrence risk for future children.

Why it’s important: This study may useful for the genetic counseling of families with ASD who are considering having another child, or for parents who are worried about their children’s risk of having a child with ASD. The study supports the idea that females require a greater risk factor burden before entering into an ASD diagnosis, making it more likely that males in the same family will have more severe autistic traits. It’s important to note, though, that currently there is no way to predict if anyone will or will not have a child with ASD or ASD-related traits.

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Study Suggests Mobile App Helps Social Interaction

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on October 29, 2015
social skills apps_2


Background: Advances in mobile computing, such as iPad, hold promise as assistive or adaptive tools for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Numerous ASD-related apps are commercially available. However, very few studies have rigorously tested their utility for improving social skills in people with the disorder.


What’s new: An upcoming issue of Association of Computing Machinery Transactions will include a study exploring the potential of a mobile app to improve social interaction in children with ASD. The researchers grouped eight children with ASD into four pairs, and alternated activities for each pair over a period of four weeks. The children had blocks to play with on weeks one and three and a two-player iPad game called Zody to play with on weeks two and four. Interviews conducted at the end of the four-week period suggested that the iPad game – which required players to take on collaborative roles – helped improve social interaction skills in the participants.


Why it’s important: This study may provide a proof of the principle that electronic assistive technologies can help improve social interactions in children with ASD. Future studies with larger participant groups could demonstrate this concept further and refine the use of specific assistive technologies.

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UK Study Finds Predictors for Antipsychotic Use in ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on October 22, 2015


Background: About one tenth of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Europe receive antipsychotic medication. In the United States, that fraction climbs to one third. To date, two drugs—risperidone and aripiprazole—are are approved by the FDA to treat irritability in children with ASD, but little is known about antipsychotic use for other co-occurring conditions.


What’s new: On October 15, 2015, the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry published a study detailing antipsychotic use in children with ASD. United Kingdom (UK) researchers examined medical records for 3,482 UK children diagnosed with ASD between 2008 and 2013. They found that children with ASD in the UK who were hyperkinetic, psychotic, depressive, obsessive compulsive, or who had tic disorders were more likely to take antipsychotic medications. Antipsychotic prescription also followed higher levels of aggression, self-injurious behaviors, poor general functioning, and increased parental concern for the child’s symptoms.


Why it’s important: To date, this is the largest study to correlate antipsychotic use with ASD and co-occurring conditions. An overarching goal with studies like these is to give clinicians the necessary tools to predict who might benefit most from available therapy options. Additionally, the results of this study may inform clinical trial design, as clinical trials frequently omit children with any comorbid conditions.

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Repetition May Impair Learning in Autism, Study Finds

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on October 15, 2015
2015_10_repetitive learning


Background: Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to shift one’s thinking in response to a change in stimuli. Studies have shown that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often struggle with cognitive flexibility. For example, after successfully completing a drill of identifying an object in a picture, individuals with ASD don’t always transfer that knowledge when asked to identify the same object in another picture.


What’s New: On October, 2015, the journal Nature Neuroscience published a study exploring the roots of cognitive inflexibility as it relates to ASD. The researchers administered a test to 23 high-functioning adults with ASD and 19 typically developing controls, asking them to locate a set of diagonal bars among horizontal bars on a screen multiple times over a period of eight days, with the location of the target switching on the fifth day. The ASD group performed similarly to the control group over the first four days, but not on days five through eight. However, a second group of participants and controls underwent a similar test – only with “dummy” screens shown in between tasks – and the ASD group did not experience the same dip in performance when the target switched locations.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that, while repetition may be an effective way to teach a single concept, repeated stimuli may in fact derail longer-term learning for people with ASD. Future studies could lay the groundwork for less repetitive learning models to aid in the education of people with ASD.


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Luteolin May Improve Behavior in ASD Subgroup

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on October 8, 2015


Background: Individualized management is an important goal for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). While we don’t yet have standardized ASD subgroups, several lines of evidence suggest that inflammatory molecules may serve to distinguish some ASD populations.


What’s new: On September 29, 2015, the journal Translational Psychiatry published a study on the effect of luteolin supplementation on children with ASD. The antioxidant luteolin is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent naturally found in some foods, including celery, broccoli, and navel oranges. The researchers found that a subgroup of children with ASD had high blood levels of inflammatory molecules—known as IL-6 and TNF—which decreased significantly after luteolin treatment. The children with the greatest decrease in IL-6 and TNF showed the most improvement in communication, daily living skills, and social behaviors.


Why it’s important: This study combines two important topics in autism research: subgroup identification and individualized treatment. An inflammation-based biomarker in individuals with ASD could help predict prognosis following anti-inflammatory treatments.   The results of this study support the need for a larger, double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial.

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Newly Found Biomarker May Aid in Autism Diagnosis

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on October 1, 2015


Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by social, communicative, and behavioral differences. Research has shown that certain activity within the brain – where calcium signaling plays a significant role in communication between neurons – is dysfunctional in ASD, impacting learning and memory.


What’s New: On September 22, 2015, the journal Translational Psychiatry published a study exploring a defect in calcium release as a possible biomarker for ASD. The researchers examined skin cells from male Caucasian donors with different genetic variations of the disorder, as well as from typically developing controls. They discovered a defect in calcium signaling within cellular membranes in the skin samples taken from donors with ASD.


Why it’s important: The cellular location of the defect – in a part of the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum – has been linked to cognitive, digestive, and immune function. While no widely accepted biomarkers currently exist for ASD, further study of the calcium signaling defect could lead to early diagnostics and targeted treatments for the disorder.

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Combined Genetic Tests May Improve ASD Management

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on September 24, 2015
2015_09_combined genetic testing


Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. To date, variations in hundreds of genes have been associated with ASD, and these explain only a small fraction of individuals with autism. Although no genetic tests are available for the diagnosis of ASD, genetic testing could offer guidance for medical management. Some tests look for big changes in DNA, while others check for small variations.


What’s New: On September 1, 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study exploring the utility of combining two genetic tests. The researchers administered chromosomal microarray analysis (CMA) – which identifies large genetic abnormalities, such chunks of missing DNA – to 258 unrelated children with an ASD diagnosis. They then applied whole-exome sequencing (WES) – which helps to identify variations in the protein encoding portions of DNA – to 95 of those children, who also had physical abnormalities sometimes associated with the disorder. They found that, individually, those tests could reveal information about a child’s susceptibility to ASD about eight percent of the time. However, when applied together in children with physical abnormalities, CMA and WES were able to provide an informative diagnosis 38 percent of the time.


Why it’s important: While still not precise enough to provide an initial ASD diagnosis, genetic tests can be useful in informing ASD medical management. Autism-linked genetic variations might predispose a child to other medical conditions, and when combined, CMA and WES could help care providers identify what comorbid conditions to prepare for.

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Repetitive Behavior Less Severe in Girls with ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on September 18, 2015
2015_09_gender symptoms_3


Background: The core symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) include social differences, communication difficulties, and restricted or repetitive behaviors. While ASD is four times more common in boys than in girls, the cause of this gender gap is unclear. Research studies are being conducted to investigate gender differences in ASD.


What’s new: In a large study of ASD core symptom severity in boys and girls, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers report that girls with ASD have fewer repetitive behaviors than boys on the spectrum. The study, published in the journal Molecular Autism, looked at ASD symptom severity using two well-established datasets of children with ASD. In both datasets, the researchers found that girls scored better than boys on measures of restrictive and repetitive behaviors, with no difference between social and communication function reported.


Brain imaging data for 25 boys and 25 girls with ASD from one of the datasets showed differences in grey matter volume in motor-related and social brain areas. The researchers did not find the same gender differences in grey matter volume between neurotypical boys and girls.


Why it’s important: Examination of ASD core symptom severity in boys and girls may offer clues about ASD risk factors in each gender—such as brain areas sensitive to environmental or genetic stressors. The current study included children with high-functioning ASD only. Additional studies that test these findings in children from a wider range of the spectrum are needed.

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Face-Reading Study Supports “Extreme Male” Theory

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on September 9, 2015
eye test study


Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is four times more common in boys than in girls. That trend has led some researchers to subscribe to the “extreme male theory” – that the brain of a person with the disorder is essentially an extreme version of male brain in terms of its structure and function.


What’s new: On August 27, 2015, the journal PLoS ONE published a study exploring sex differences when it comes to interpreting facial expressions. The researchers administered an existing online test – called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” – to a total of 715 adults at an average age of 39. The scores of 152 men and 168 women with typical development followed the previously established trend: women scored better at the task of choosing the correct emotion to match a given facial expression. However, the scores of the 178 men and 217 women with ASD were nearly identical – and much lower across the board than those of their typically developing peers.


Why it’s important: While the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test has been used in hundreds of studies since its development in 1997, this is the largest study to administer the test to people with ASD. Future studies could reveal more about the underlying causes of ASD by delving deeper into the sex-common and sex-specific features of ASD.

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Regressive ASD Linked to Temporal Lobe Activity

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on September 1, 2015
temporal activity_2


Background: The temporal lobe, one of the four major parts of the brain’s cerebral cortex, aids in processing sound, categorizing objects, and consolidating memories. It also plays a role in visual processing, emotions, and language. Researchers first began to suspect a relationship between temporal lobe abnormalities and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 1975. (see second Pubmed link below)


What’s New: On July 30, 2015, the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry published a study investigating if irregular electrical brain activity – an indicator of epilepsy – could predict any specific feature of ASD. The researchers analyzed the results of brain scans from 220 children and young adults, 71 with ASD and 146 with other developmental disorders. After performing brain measurements on a subgroup of participants, they found a correlation between abnormal electrical brain activity, relatively large head size, and loss of previously acquired developmental skills, known as regression. The relationship between regression and abnormal electrical brain activity was the strongest when that activity took place in the temporal lobe.


Why it’s important: The results of this study support the possibility that irregular electrical activity in distinct brain areas may predict or help define ASD subgroups.

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Researchers Create Rapid ASD Screening for Toddlers

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on August 25, 2015
rapid test_2


Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is typically diagnosed via behavioral observation of a child. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that children undergo a “level one” screening at their 18- and 24-month well visits. If that screening, which involves questions about a child’s communicative and social behaviors, raises a concern about ASD, the child is usually referred to a specialist who can conduct more formal assessments.


What’s New: On August 15, 2015, the Journal of Pediatrics published a study detailing a new screening tool for toddlers. The researchers administered the ten-minute, play-based test, called Rapid Interactive Screening Test for Autism in Toddlers (RITA-T) to a total of 61 toddlers, including 42 with developmental concerns established by a level one screening. RITA-T was 88 percent accurate in predicting the 23 ASD diagnoses ultimately made through formal diagnostic tests.


Why it’s important: RITA-T has the potential to become a useful “level two” screening tool for clinicians, helping to weed out the false positives generated by level one screenings and allowing for earlier diagnosis and intervention.

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Digestive Enzyme Supplement May Improve ASD Symptoms

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on August 18, 2015
2015_08_gastric enzyme


Background: Gastrointestinal ailment is frequently observed in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Several studies have shown that individuals with ASD may lack proper digestive enzymes, such as lactase—an enzyme that helps digest the lactose in dairy products. One theory is that undigested nutrients may contribute to some of the core symptoms of autism and any co-occurring gastrointestinal distress.


What’s new: On August 31, 2015, the journal Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience published a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study investigating the benefits of digestion enzyme supplementation for children with ASD. The researchers gave 92 children with ASD between 3 to 9 years of age either a combo of gastric enzymes (papain and pepsin) or a sugar syrup placebo, to be taken at each meal. After three months, the group receiving the enzymes showed significant improvement in emotional response, general behavior (mainly improved restrictive, repetitive, and stereotypic behavior), and gastrointestinal symptoms.


Why it’s important: This study supports the need for a larger, randomized, double-blind study of digestive enzymes for children with ASD. According to the authors, digestive enzymes are inexpensive, readily available, and safe for use.

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Level of Hormone Predicts Theory of Mind Ability in ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on August 13, 2015


Background: Difficulty with social functions is a defining characteristic of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Hormones in the brain, such as oxytocin and arginine vasopressin, play an important role in regulating social behaviors in humans and other mammals. While several studies have focused on the potential role for oxytocin in the diagnosis and treatment of ASD, few investigations have centered on arginine vasopressin.


What’s new: On July 22, 2015, the online journal PLOS ONE published a study examining the relationship between blood levels of arginine vasopressin (AVP) and social abilities in those with ASD, their siblings, and neurotypical controls. The researchers first confirmed that blood levels of AVP predicted brain levels of the hormone. Next, they found that ASD individuals with lower blood levels of AVP have decreased Theory of Mind—the ability to interpret another’s intensions and emotions. This correlation is specific only to Theory of Mind ability, as AVP blood levels did not predict other social function scores.


Why it’s important: ASD is a heterogeneous condition—individuals along the spectrum have varying degrees and combinations of symptoms. Consequently, there is individual variability in Theory of Mind. Having a biomarker for this nearly universal feature of ASD will be important for diagnosis and treatment selection. This study suggests that the blood level of arginine vasopressin could be a biomarker for theory of mind ability in individuals with autism.

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Sensorimotor Differences in ASD Appear in Infancy

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on August 4, 2015


Background: In the United States, one in 68 children is estimated to have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children who have an older sibling with the disorder face a much higher risk, which studies have estimated to be about one in 10. Researchers can study these infants and toddlers at high risk of ASD to learn about the early onset characteristics of autism.


What’s New: On July 16, 2015, The Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders published a study exploring differences in behavioral, cognitive, and adaptive development among infants at high and low risk of developing ASD. The researchers performed established screenings to assess the behavior of 308 children—210 of whom were high-risk and 98 of whom were low risk for ASD—at 6, 12 and 24 months of age. They classified 49 of the high-risk children as having ASD at 24 months, with the children who most closely matched the profile demonstrating sensorimotor deficits at 6 months of age. In contrast, the less severely affected children displayed their first differences in the form of socio-communication skills by two years of age.


Why it’s important: Previous studies on infants have revealed differences first appearing in social and communicative abilities. This finding—that children most severely affected by ASD have early sensorimotor difficulties—could reveal some of the physiological basis for the disorder, leading to earlier diagnosis and intervention.

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