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.

Diagnosis Swap May Increase ASD Prevalence

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on July 28, 2015
Diagnosis swap

 

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by impaired social and communication skills and the presence of restrictive or repetitive behaviors. The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates the current prevalence of ASD at 1 in 68 children. This is a sharp increase from the CDC estimate of 1 in 150 children with ASD in 2002.

 

What’s new: On July 22, 2015, the American Journal of Medical Genetics published a study comparing the prevalence of ASD with other comorbid conditions, such as intellectual disability (ID), among 6.2 million children enrolled in special education programs in the United States. The researchers report that a decrease in ID diagnosis accounts for about 64 percent of the increase in autism prevalence between 2002 and 2010. Age of the child appears to influence the re-categorization of diagnosis, with older children seeing a greater shift toward autism diagnosis than younger children.

 

Why it’s important: These data suggest that healthcare professionals are using the diagnosis of ASD in place of comorbid classifications more often, and this accounts, in part, for the increase in ASD rates over the last decade.


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Study Questions Gluten- and Casein-Free Diets for ASD

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on July 23, 2015
gluten_2

 

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been linked to gastrointestinal issues, and some families follow specific dietary guidelines to allay both digestive and behavioral symptoms. In particular, these diets have excluded gluten and casein—proteins found in bread and milk, respectively. While some healthcare professionals recommend a gluten-free, casein-free diet—commonly known as a GFCF diet—studies that confirm its efficacy are lacking.

 

What’s New: On July 4, 2015, the journal Acta Paediatrica published a study exploring the effects of gluten and casein on the gastrointestinal and behavioral symptoms of children with ASD as well as the urine concentration of a protein previously associated with behavioral issues in autistic children. The researchers performed a double-blind, randomized clinical study on children between the ages of 4 and 7 with severe behavioral issues related to ASD, all of whom were already on a gluten- and casein-free diet. After giving a gluten-casein supplement to 38 children and a rice meal placebo to 36 children for one week, they found no significant difference between the two groups in behavior, urinary protein expression, and level of gastrointestinal disruption.

 

Why it’s important: While previous studies have evaluated the effects of eliminating gluten and casein from the diets of children with ASD, this is the first study to explore the results of adding the proteins back in. Future studies could evaluate the long-term effects of gluten and casein on behavior and gastrointestinal symptoms, given the limited exposure time to these proteins in this study.


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Autism Could be Indicated by Sniffing Patterns

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on July 14, 2015
sniff test

 

Background: Sensory-motor coordination involves integration between the parts of the brain that receive and interpret stimuli and those that facilitate action in response. For example, upon touching a hot surface, people immediately remove their hands. Studies have suggested that sensory-motor coordination is atypical in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

 

What’s New: On July 2, 2015, the journal Current Biology published a study exploring the response to odors in children with and without ASD. The researchers used a device to measure the time to sniff and duration of sniff for 36 children between the ages of 4 and 11 who were presented with pleasant and foul odors. They found that the 18 typically developing children followed the same sniffing patterns seen in adults; they would sniff pleasant odors for longer periods of time, but respond with brief sniffs when presented with foul odors. The 18 children with ASD, however, sniffed both pleasant and foul odors for the same amount of time. Using the device, the researchers were able to predict 81 percent of ASD cases.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that the olfactory response is different in children with ASD, with more pronounced differences in children with higher degrees of social impairment. Future research could determine whether the researchers’ method, which requires no verbal response, could be used to help diagnose the disorder in very young children to allow for early intervention.


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Study Probes Memory and Language Patterns in ASD

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on July 7, 2015
language delay

 

Background: While differences in communication comprise a core feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), those with the disorder experience a wide range of language abilities and impairments. Studies have compared language delay in children with ASD to language delay in those without the disorder—demonstrating an overlap in the difficulties they encounter producing sounds, words, and language.

 

What’s New: On June 14, 2015, the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders published a study assessing language impairment in children with and without ASD. The researchers administered a battery of language tests to 60 children between 5 and 8 years of age. They found that children who experienced language impairments (both with and without ASD) had more trouble remembering words that they had heard than children with ASD and no language impairment. However, the ability to repeat non-word sounds differed among children with language delay—those with ASD outperformed those without ASD in repeating short non-word sounds.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that the neurodevelopmental factors leading to language delay in children with ASD are different from those leading to impairments in children without the disorder. Long-term studies of both populations could shed light on how patterns in their language and memory compare as they mature.


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Size of Brain Area May Predict ASD in Infants

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on July 1, 2015
2015_06_CorpusCallosum

 

Background: “White matter” refers to the parts of the brain that transmit signals between brain regions. The brain’s largest white matter connection, the corpus callosum, is a thick bundle of fibers connecting the brain’s hemispheres and facilitating communication between them. Numerous studies have shown that the corpus callosum is smaller in adults and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than in their typically developing counterparts.

 

What’s New: On May 3, 2015, the journal Brain published the first study focusing on the corpus callosum in infants at risk of developing ASD. The researchers scanned the brains of 378 children—270 with older siblings diagnosed with ASD—at 6, 12, and then 24 months of age. Fifty-seven of those children fit the ASD profile at 24 months of age. In those children, the corpus callosum was much thicker—especially at the 6- and 12-month time points, with differences diminishing as children approached 2 years of age. The finding held even when the researchers controlled for brain size, which studies have shown is larger in infants with ASD.

 

Why it’s important: This is the first study to examine how the size of the corpus callosum during infancy relates to ASD diagnosis. Future research could examine the biological mechanisms that lead to changes in relative corpus callosum size from infancy to child- and adulthood in those with autism. Several lines of evidence point to abnormalities in the way neuron growth and insulation is managed in the brain.


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Study Links Autism to Congenital Abnormalities

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on June 18, 2015
2015_06_congenital

 

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by differences in behavior, communication, and social interaction and has been linked to genetic and environmental risk factors. Studies haves suggested that congenital abnormalities such as cleft lips and palates—which begin to form early in pregnancy—are more common in children with ASD.

 

What’s New: On June 3, 2015, the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published a study exploring the relationship between various congenital abnormalities and ASD in children with and without intellectual disabilities. The researchers examined the records of 17,695 Finnish children born between 1987 and 2000—4,441 with ASD and 934 with congenital abnormalities. They found that children with ASD were more likely to have congenital abnormalities of the eye, face, and neck, as well as the central nervous and musculoskeletal systems, development of which occurs during the first trimester. They also found that both the children with ASD and those with congenital abnormalities were more likely to have been born prematurely or at a low birth weight.

 

Why it’s important: This study suggests that—while ASD isn’t typically diagnosed until children are at least two years old—the underlying factors leading to the disorder may appear very early during gestation. Further research could illuminate the precise environmental, genetic, and epigenetic influences leading to ASD in the developing brain.


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Large-Scale Study Strongly Supports ASD, Parental Age Link

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on June 11, 2015
2015_06_11_age study

 

Background: In addition to the genes they pass on, parents’ age at the time of a child’s birth appears to influence ASD risk. Studies conducted over the past two decades have suggested that children of older parents have a higher risk of developing ASD.

 

What’s New: On June 9, 2015, a study in Molecular Psychiatry probed the role of parental age in ASD. The researchers examined health records from nearly six million children across five countries—with more than 30,000 ASD diagnoses. They found that the children born to mothers between the ages of 40 and 49 or to fathers older than 50 were more likely to have an ASD diagnosis than those with parents in their twenties. They also found an increased likelihood of ASD diagnosis in children born to mothers younger than 20 and in children whose parents were more than 10 years apart in age.

 

Why it’s important: This is the largest-ever multinational study looking at parental age and ASD. While the results appear to support the theory posited by previous studies—that genes inside sperm undergo mutations as men get older, contributing to ASD in the resulting offspring—future research could illuminate the biological roles of maternal age and age gaps between parents in relation to ASD.


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Study Paves Way for Blood Test for Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on June 2, 2015
2015_06_02_blood test

 

Background: To date, trained clinicians diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by structured behavioral observation of a child. The typical age of ASD diagnosis is between the ages of four and five in US children. However, research has shown that interventions performed earlier in life lead to better outcomes in children with the disorder.

 

What’s New: On April 1, 2015, JAMA Psychiatry published a study testing the effectiveness of genetic biomarkers in the blood to predict whether very young children would receive an ASD diagnosis. The researchers first looked for factors differentiating the blood of 147 male children between the ages of one and four—56 with typical development and 91 who were diagnosed with ASD by their third birthday. They identified a genetic signature related to the body’s immune response that was 83 percent accurate at predicting whether participants had ASD. The researchers were able to replicate their findings in a separate group of 73 children, which included 44 boys with ASD.

 

Why it’s important: This study provides proof of the principle that immune-related gene expression differs in people with ASD. Future work could lead to a blood test to screen for the disorder in children as young as one year old, allowing for earlier intervention.


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Study Probes Children’s Language Outcomes in Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on May 26, 2015
2015_05_26_verbal ability

 

Background: According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 30 percent of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may never develop functional language abilities. However, little research has explored the factors contributing to those children’s verbal deficits.

 

What’s New: The January 2015 issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry included a study probing the relationship between language acquisition and the severity of symptoms in children with ASD. The researchers assessed the behavior and social abilities of 70 children between the ages of 1 and 5 with ASD, using established observational screenings upon admission into the study, and then again when the child was five years old. They found that, of the 47 children who could not say more than one word at the time of the first observation, only 36 percent (17 children) could utter phrases by the time of the second observation. Minimal verbal ability was linked to the changes in the severity of the children’s social symptoms, but not to repeated behaviors.

 

Why it’s important: This study adds to research suggesting that a significant portion of children with ASD remain minimally verbal by age 5. Future research over longer periods of time could reveal the precise relationship between the severity of autism symptoms and language acquisition.


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ASD Linked to Fewer Gestures in Infancy

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on May 19, 2015
2015_05_19_gesture

 

Background: One of the trademark symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is impaired communication, which is accompanied by difficulty with social interaction and restrictive, repetitive behaviors. Although ASD is typically not diagnosed until later in childhood, language delay can present itself as early as the first year of life.

 

What’s New: The January 2015 issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders included a study examining the relationship between language production and the gesture use by infants and their caretakers earlier in life. The researchers performed observational screenings on a total of 75 infants—48 who had a sibling with ASD and 27 who did not. During observation, the researchers evaluated maternal and infant gestures at 12 months of age and the children’s subsequent language production at 18 months of age.

The research team found that the infants who later fit the ASD profile produced the fewest gestures, and that the use of gestures by mothers only affected the language production of the infants who did not fit the ASD profile. They also observed that mothers of the infants deemed high-risk for ASD by virtue of having a sibling with the disorder tended to produce more gestures, such as pointing and nodding when interacting with their children.

 

Why it’s important: This study reinforces other research suggesting a delay in gesture production in infants who would ultimately receive an ASD diagnosis. Future research could illuminate intervention strategies based on interactive gesturing by caretakers.


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Study Links Autistic Traits to Adult Disorders

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on May 12, 2015
2015_05_12_autistic traits

 

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) presents itself as differences in communication, social interaction, and behavior. Research has shown that these traits often appear in children with psychiatric conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder. However, fewer studies have evaluated whether adults affected by psychiatric disorders also exhibit autistic-like traits.

 

What’s New: On April 2, 2015, the online journal PLOS ONE published a study exploring the prevalence of autistic-like traits in adults with psychiatric disorders. The researchers applied a series of established psychological and behavioral screenings to a total of 290 individuals between the ages of 25 and 59—125 with clinical depression, 56 with bipolar disorder, 44 with schizophrenia, and 65 with no psychiatric diagnosis. They found that a significant portion of the individuals with psychiatric disorders—with the exception of depression in remission—exhibited autistic-like traits like restrictive, repetitive behaviors. The prevalence of these ranged from 46 percent in those with ongoing depression to 61 percent in those with schizophrenia—as compared to the 14 percent of individuals with no psychiatric diagnosis who demonstrated autistic-like traits.

 

Why it’s important: This is the first major study to examine the link between adult psychiatric conditions and the traits observed in ASD. Because those traits were so strongly associated with adult bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the findings could inform screening and treatment for those patient populations.


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Study Links Brain Differences to Language Delay

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on May 4, 2015
2015_05_language delay_2

 

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) varies widely in its presentation. While some individuals on the spectrum have no history of language delay, others experience extreme differences in behavior, social skills, and communication compared to peers. Several studies have addressed the brain differences between individuals with ASD and those with typical development, but little research has focused on how brain development might differ for those with varying presentations of the disorder.

 

What’s new: On March 3, 2015, the journal Autism Research published a study exploring brain differences in adults with ASD to determine whether those who had experienced language delay were neurologically different from those who had not. Every participant had an IQ in the normal range. The researchers found that the 27 individuals who had experienced language delay had thinner layers in a specific brain region than the 37 individuals with typical language development. The thickness of that brain region, commonly associated with cognition, correlated with higher verbal IQ scores.

 

Why its important: This is the first study to link verbal IQ to differences in specific regions of the brain’s outer layers. This work could help researchers understand the underlying factors leading to the variation in different cases of ASD.


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New Study Finds No Link Between Autism and MMR

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on April 22, 2015
MMR

 

Background: Pediatricians recommend that children receive a vaccine to protect them from measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) between 12 and 15 months of age, and then again between 4 and 6 years of age. However, the belief that these shots increase children’s risk of developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has contributed to a decrease in vaccination rates, threatening herd immunity.

 

What’s new: On April 21, 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a large-scale study on the prevalence of ASD in vaccinated and unvaccinated children, all with older siblings—as children who already have a sibling with the disorder are considered to be at higher risk. The researchers looked at insurance claims data from 95,727 children between the ages of 0 to 5, 994 of whom had been diagnosed with ASD. They found that the risk of diagnosis was nearly identical for children who had been vaccinated versus those who had not. In addition, they determined that the risk of ASD did not increase following administration of MMR vaccines in children whose older siblings already had the disorder.

 

Why it’s important: This study adds to a wide body of research conducted over the past 15 years challenging the link between vaccines and ASD. The study also shed light on low vaccination rates among children whose older siblings had an ASD diagnosis—which the researchers attribute to the ongoing belief among affected families that vaccines led to their children’s ASD status.


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Omega-3 Fatty Acids Fail to Improve ASD Symptoms

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on April 8, 2015
omega-3 study_5

 

Background: According to a 2006 study, nearly 30 percent of children with autism use some form of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation. Omega-3 fatty acids are a special type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. They are highly concentrated in fish (in the form of DHA and EPA) and some plants (in the form of ALA), but can be taken in pill or oil form too. Because DHA is a critical factor in brain growth and development, research groups have investigated if omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can improve ASD symptoms.

 

While several studies report a decrease in hyperactivity among children who take omega-3 fatty acid supplements, in no study was this correlation significant. Adding to the confusion, many studies were very small and lacked randomized, double blind controls. Yet, despite a lack of scientific evidence showing effectiveness, omega-3 fatty acid use remains a staple in the ASD complementary and alternative treatment toolkit.

 

What’s new: On March 21, 2015, the online journal Molecular Autism published a study on DHA plus EPA supplementation for children (two to five years of age) with ASD in a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled study. The researchers found no significant difference in core or associated symptoms between children receiving DHA and EPA versus placebo. They did, however, find a significant worsening of externalizing behaviors in the DHA plus EPA group. The researchers hypothesize that exacerbation of underlying gastrointestinal issues in the omega-3 fatty acid group may account for the significant worsening of externalizing behaviors.

 

Why it’s important: This study clearly indicates the lack of significant correlation between omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and ASD symptom improvement. The study also suggests that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may worsen externalizing behaviors in children with co-occurring gastrointestinal issues, but this observation requires replication before conclusions can be made.


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Study Pinpoints Differences in Autistic Brain

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on March 31, 2015
2015_03_whole brain voxel

 

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by differences in social interaction, communication, and behavior. Researchers have hypothesized that the functioning of—and communication between—related brain regions is atypical in people affected by the disorder. Their studies have largely focused on select areas of the brain, as opposed to observing them within the context of the entire brain system.

 

What’s new: On March 20, 2015, the journal Brain published a large study providing a whole-brain perspective of ASD versus typical development. The researchers used a grid-based technique to analyze the entire brain at once with data from existing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans of the resting brain. They found that, in comparison to 509 typically developing individuals, the 419 participants with ASD showed differences in 20 key areas.

 

Why its important: The observed differences were in areas of the brain active in processing facial expressions, sense of self, and theory of mind—the ability to discern and predict other’s mental states. Future studies could leverage this technique to learn more about brain function in obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and schizophrenia.


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Brain Awareness Week 2015

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on March 16, 2015
Brain Awareness Week 2015

 

March 16-22 marks Brain Awareness Week 2015, a worldwide campaign coordinated by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and the Society for Neuroscience to promote the progress and benefits of brain research. Hundreds of international events are underway in celebration of this unique week.

 

Autism Reading Room offers extensive coverage of brain biology, from development to function, in our Brain Biology area. Check it out!


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Twin Study Finds Autism Risk Is Largely Genetic

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on March 11, 2015
2015_03_twin study genetic

 

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects about 1 percent children worldwide. Many children who are diagnosed have a sibling with ASD. Research has suggested that the disorder is heritable. While some researchers report that genetic factors are more predictive of ASD, other investigations suggest that environmental factors play an equal, if not larger, role.

 

What’s new: On March 4, 2015, the journal JAMA Psychiatry published a study of ASD in pairs of twins. The researchers recruited participants of a longitudinal study on identical twins, who share the same DNA, and fraternal twins, who have DNA similarity equivalent to non-twin siblings. After an initial screening of more than 6,000 twin pairs born in the United Kingdom between 1994 and 1996, the researchers conducted additional evaluations for ASD on smaller groups of twin pairs. They found that the identical twins were far more likely to share an ASD diagnosis. They also found that some environmental factors, such as living in an area with high air pollution, increased the risk of an ASD diagnosis—but that those played less of a role than genetic influences.

 

Why it’s important: Using a large cohort of twin pairs and a variety of diagnostic tools, the researchers have highlighted the genetic underpinning of ASD and ASD-related traits. Furthermore, they showed that the liability to ASD resides mainly in the additive effects of genetic factors. Future studies could probe genetic and environmental factors further—examining the predominance of ASD in boys and exploring possible interactions between genetics and the environment, for instance.


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ASD Subset More Sensitive to Mitochondrial Stressors

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on March 4, 2015
2015_03_mitochondria dysfunction

 

Background: Mitochondria, the microscopic powerhouses of cells, provide energy for cellular functions throughout the body and brain. Several studies have linked mitochondrial damage or dysfunction to complex neurological disorders, including autism. Both genetic mutations and environmental insults can disrupt mitochondrial function.

 

What’s new: On January 21, 2015, the Journal of Toxicology published a study looking at mitochondrial sensitivity to oxidative stress (when the body fails to eliminate damaging free radicals in the cell) in 19 children with autistic disorder (AD) and 19 control individuals. The researchers used a type of blood cell to make cell lines—where cells grow and replicate in a petri dish—for their study. All of the cells derived from AD children had a baseline level of mitochondrial dysfunction compared to controls. The researchers reported a subset of AD children (31 percent) whose cells exhibited remarkably abnormal mitochondrial function when exposed to ethylmercury, a chemical known to cause oxidative stress. The pretreatment of these cells with an antioxidant-boosting drug before ethylmercury exposure improved mitochondrial function.

 

Why it’s important: Ethylmercury is most famous for its role as a metabolite of thiomerisal, the controversial preservative in some vaccines. The take home message from this study is not that ethylmercury—or a vaccine—causes autism, but that a subset of autistic individuals may be more sensitive to environmental stressors, such as oxidative stress, due to abnormal mitochondria function in cells. The authors of the study are quick to point out that any assumptions made about ethylmercury exposure in the living person based on these in vitro cell results would be “overstating and unsubstantiated.” Why the mitochondria of these individuals is more sensitive, and how that may affect brain function, remains an open question.


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Behavioral Training May Normalize Brain Dysfunction

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on February 25, 2015
2015_02_auditory training

 

Background: Research suggests that both genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is characterized by differences in brain function and behavior. Multiple studies have pointed to antidepressants as a possible environmental factor, proposing that exposure to the drugs in the weeks before and after birth could induce ASD symptoms in children. In some animal models of autism, researchers expose rats to antidepressants to mimic the behavioral effects seen in children.

 

What’s new: On February 2, 2015, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study examining the effects of behavioral training on rats exposed to antidepressants shortly after birth. The researchers found that the rats behaved similarly to children with ASD—preferring to play alone than with other rats, for example. Using a set of sounds shown to drive changes in the brain in typically developing animals, the researchers observed that, at first, rats exposed to antidepressants scored poorly on cognitive tests—and had underlying brain dysfunction. Over the course of two months—the rough equivalent of two years for people—the rats continued the auditory training and showed significant improvement in their behavioral responses and some reversal of their brain dysfunction, as well.

 

Why its important: The effect of antidepressant exposure affected male rats much more than females—a pattern that mirrors the prevalence of ASD in the human population, in which boys are four times more likely than girls to receive a diagnosis. The study also positions behavioral training that targets brain function as a possible therapy for children with ASD.


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Oxytocin Improves Eye Contact

By Sharmila Banerjee-Basu, Ph.D. on February 18, 2015
2015_02_oxytocin eye contact

 

Background: Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain with diverse physiological functions: labor contractions during childbirth, lactation, and sexual intimacy. More recently, scientists have examined oxytocin’s role in mediating social behaviors across mammalian species, including human. At present, oxytocin is an attractive pharmaceutical candidate for disorders of social cognition such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

 

What’s new: In a study published online, February 10, 2015, in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, scientists at University of Cambridge, UK, reported the effect of oxytocin in improving eye contact in a real-word social situation in adults with autism. The researchers administered an intranasal spray consisting of either oxytocin or placebo (same formulation without oxytocin), in a double-blinded manner, to 32 adult males with ASD and 34 neurotypical control participants. A novel test for social interaction – recording eye movements in a naturalistic setting – indicated that oxytocin significantly improved eye contact in both the ASD and control population. Importantly, oxytocin had a greater effect on looking time in ASD individuals with poor eye contact than in the placebo condition.

 

Why it’s important: Ongoing clinical trials are testing if therapeutic oxytocin can alleviate social cognition difficulties in children and young adults with ASD. This is the first study to show improvement of a core behavioral component of autism: eye contact in a social situation.


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Researchers Probe Blood Biomarkers for ASD

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on February 9, 2015
2015_02_09_blood

 

Background: At present, the only way to diagnose autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is through a series of behavioral screenings administered by trained professionals. While no laboratory test for ASD is currently available, recent studies have suggested that certain features detected in the blood could prove reliable as biomarkers for the disorder.

 

What’s new: The January 2015 issue of Neuroscience included a study evaluating two components in blood, serotonin and interleukin-6, as biomarkers for detecting ASD. While serotonin helps to regulate mood, interleukin-6 plays a role in the body’s inflammatory response to invading pathogens. The researchers performed blood tests on a total of 66 individuals—35 with ASD and 31 with typical development—whose average age was 12. They found that levels of serotonin and interleukin-6 were significantly elevated in the individuals with ASD, and were highest in those with the most severe forms of the disorder.

 

Why its important: The study found that, when taken together, serotonin and interleukin-6 were very reliable biomarkers for ASD—as blood tests looking for both molecules were accurate nearly 90 percent of the time. This work could lead to a clinical blood test for ASD risk, and could point the way to treatments targeting serotonin and interleukin-6.


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Tiny Air Pollutants During Pregnancy Increase ASD Risk

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on January 30, 2015
pollution

 

Background: While genetic factors play a significant role in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), several studies have pointed to air pollution as a potential  environmental contributor to ASD risk.

 

What’s new: On December 18, 2014, the journal Environmental Health Perspectives featured a study exploring the correlation between ASD and air pollutant exposure before, during, and after pregnancy. The researchers found that exposure to particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size—about 1/30 the width of a hair—during the third trimester significantly associated with an increased risk of autism. Larger particulate matter (2.5-10 micrometers) and exposure before pregnancy, during the first and second trimesters, and after pregnancy were not strongly linked to autism.

 

Why it’s important: Three recent studies found similar results. The strengths of the current study include a relatively large sample size (245 cases and 1522 controls), sampling from across the United States, timing of pollutant exposure, and a focus on specific particulate matter. The type of air pollution associated with ASD risk in this study is produced by all types of combustion, including car engines, power plants, and wood burning.


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Brief Observations Unreliable for ASD Diagnosis

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on January 22, 2015
observation

 

Background: Although studies have identified differences in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) appearing as early as infancy, the behavior of very young children with ASD could match that of typically developing counterparts at times. With age, atypical behaviors appear with increasing frequency in children with ASD. This pattern is potentially problematic for families seeking early diagnosis, as the behavioral observations considered in clinicians’evaluations of children are usually quite brief.

 

What’s new: The February 2015 issue of Pediatrics included a study exploring the efficacy of brief behavioral observations for identifying children with ASD. The researchers conducted evaluations for a total of 44 children between the ages of 15 and 33 months, administering multiple questionnaires and observations to assign them to one of three groups: ASD, language delay, and typical development. Two psychologists specializing in early childhood development then watched 10- to 30- minute videos of the children to make their own evaluations. The researchers found that the experts were unable to catch 39 percent of the ASD cases from the brief observations alone, as the children with ASD demonstrated typical behavior 89 percent of the time.

 

Why it’s important: This is the first study to measure the extent to which young children with ASD can exhibit typical behavior. It suggests that any atypical behaviors appearing in observations merit follow-up and additional screening.


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Autism Increase Attributed to Reporting Practices

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on January 13, 2015
Diagnosis rates

 

Background: The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 American children will receive a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. The rate has increased significantly since autism first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980.

 

What’s new: The January issue of JAMA Pediatrics featured a study examining autism prevalence in Denmark, where rates of ASD have also increased. Because of the country’s nationalized health system, the researchers were able to examine the records of all 677,915 Danish children born between 1980 and 1991, following up until 2011. They determined that two-thirds of the increase in ASD rates could be attributed to changes in the diagnostic criteria in 1994 and the inclusion of diagnoses from outpatient facilities in 1995.

 

Why it’s important: This is the first large-scale study to quantify the effect changes in reporting practices have on ASD rates. Future research could determine the cause of the increase not explained by changes in reporting practices, as well as the generalizability of these findings to other countries, such as the United States.


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