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.

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
2016_03_15_adoption_2

 

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
2016_03_sleep

 

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
2016_03_01_NSC_2

 

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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Different Visual Processing Patterns Observed in Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on February 23, 2016
line direction_3

 

Background: On a visual plane, the oblique axis runs at a 45 degree angle relative to the horizontal and vertical axes. For typically developing individuals, it is easier to perceive patterns along the vertical and horizontal axes than those along the oblique axis—a phenomenon known as the “oblique effect.”

 

What’s New: On January 21, 2016, the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience published a study exploring how people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) differed from their typically developing peers on visual processing tasks. The researchers administered the same task to 64 boys between the ages of seven and fifteen, 26 of whom had ASD. Each participant was tasked with looking at a striped object tilted at various angles, and to determine its position relative to the vertical and oblique axis. The group with typical development perceived the relationship of objects to the vertical axis much better than the relationship of objects to the oblique axis – a pattern not observed in the group with ASD.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that children with ASD have impaired visual processing along a vertical axis, but not along an oblique axis. Future studies could pinpoint the neurological basis of this difference, revealing clues about the underpinnings of ASD.


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Brain Imaging Far from ASD Diagnosis, But Getting There

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on February 16, 2016
2016_02_16_brain imaging

 

Background: A major goal in autism research is to identify measurable indicators, known as biomarkers, for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis. To date, researchers have struggled to find a universal commonality among the brains of individuals with autism. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), a type of scan that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of organ systems, is a popular technique to study brain structures in a living person and holds much promise for finding an ASD biomarker.

 

What’s new: At the 37th International Conference of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, researchers reported on how well structural MRI predicts an autism diagnosis. In a large study using a well-established set of MRI brain scans from 15 research centers across the United States, researchers performed several experiments, showing that:

 

  • The accuracy of autism classification by MRI got better with increased autism severity
  • MRI detected possible anatomical features of autism with higher sensitivity when the individual was less than ten years of age or more than 30 years of age
  • The frontal and temporal regions of the brain were important for autism classification by MRI
  • Due to the heterogeneous nature of ASD, studies using a small number of participants may inflate the actual predictive power of MRI

 

Why it’s important: This is the first study to find that autism severity, according to social and communicative behaviors, correlates with the predictive power of MRI. The results suggest that individual behavioral information may help augment MRI findings. The study also highlights the importance of social and language regions of the brain, key age ranges for MRI effectiveness, and the requirement for large numbers of participants in brain imaging studies for autism.


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Visual Study Links Neurotransmitter to Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on February 9, 2016
binocular visual

 

Background: Neurotransmitters are chemicals that send messages within the brain, contributing to a range of every day functions. There are seven primary neurotransmitters in humans: acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), and histamine. GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in both the brain and spinal cord – helping to suppress excess stimuli. Previous studies suggest that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may stem from an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory signals in the brain.

 

What’s New: On January 11, 2016, the journal Current Biology published a study exploring the relationship between GABA and the behavioral symptoms of people with ASD. The researchers administered a visual test to 20 individuals with autism and 21 with typical development, showing images in both eyes and testing how well the participants suppressed one image to focus on another—typically, the brain alternates focus between each eye and the singular mixed image. The researchers found that the participants with ASD were significantly slower to switch their focus between the images. The team then used a specialized brain imaging technique on the participants and found a correlation between the visual task performance and GABA activity in the brain.

 

Why it’s important: The ability to switch focus between two visual cues is thought to rely on the brain’s ability to control the inhibition and excitation of neurons, making this a good model to study inhibitory signals in the brain. Future studies could delve deeper into this relationship, determining the precise role of GABA inactivity in ASD.


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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
2016_01_comorbid

 

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
blindness

 

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
2015_12_PCOS

 

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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