Brain Study Reveals Commonality between ASD and ADHD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on July 29, 2018

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by differences in communication, behavior, and social development. Prior brain-imaging studies have shown pattered differences in the connectivity of brains of people with ASD compared to their typically developing peers. However, little research has compared the brains of ASD with those of people with other neurodevelopmental disorders.


What’s New: A new study compared the connectivity of brains of people with ASD to those of people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), seeking commonalities. The researchers leveraged existing brain-imaging data from a total of 1305 people between the ages of 7 and 21 – 284 with ASD, 369 with ADHD, and 652 age-matched controls with typical development.


The researchers found:


  • Three main factors were common to the brains of people with ASD and ADHD, but not people with typical development.
  • The three factors were differences in the connectivity of the default mode network (a set of brain regions active when a person is daydreaming), the dorsal attention network (a set of brain regions active when a person is looking into space), and the salience network (a set of brain regions active in identifying important stimuli).
  • These patterns likely comprise a “neural signature” for people with ASD and those with ADHD, reinforcing existing diagnoses made for either disorder.

Why it’s important: This study reveals underlying patterns in brain connectivity in both people with ASD and those with ADHD. Further research could help define this “neural signature” for clinical application.


Image Credit: Nevit Dilmen, NIH 3D Print Exchange, National Institutes of Health. Shared via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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Pupil Dilation in Infants linked to Autism Risk

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on July 11, 2018


Background: Pupillometry is the study of how our eyes react to light. When it gets dark, our pupils expand; when exposed to light, they contract. Aberrations in the size of our pupils and the speed at which they react to light may reveal underlying neurological conditions. However, pupillometry has not been extensively studied in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).


What’s New: A new study investigated whether a relationship existed between pupils’ responses to light and autism risk in very young children. The researchers classified 208 infants between the ages of 9 and 10 months as either high risk (having an older sibling with ASD) or low risk (having no older sibling with ASD). They recorded sensory responses using cutting-edge eye-tracking technology while shining a light 16 times towards the infants’ eyes. They followed up at 36 months of age, classifying the children into ASD and non-ASD groups based on their scores on standard screening and diagnostic tools.


The researchers found:


  • Children who were ultimately classified into the ASD group experienced greater constriction of the pupils in response to light as infants. This finding was especially pronounced in high-risk infants who developed ASD later on.
  • Constriction of the infants’ pupils was also a predictor for ASD symptom severity. Those who experienced the greatest constriction tended to have the most severe symptoms.
  • Children who were classified as high risk but not diagnosed with ASD experienced different clinical outcomes than their low-risk peers, including cognitive and motor delays, attention deficits, and hyperactivity.


Why it’s important: This study highlights an autism marker – in both individuals and in families – based on sensory processing and related to the responsiveness of pupils to light in infancy. This finding could shed light on the underlying neurological basis for ASD and may eventually inform treatment approaches.

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Face-recording App May Screen for Autism

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on June 25, 2018


Background: Recent years have seen a huge surge in the number of apps created for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with the current number in the Apple app store topping 1,000. Many of these apps are aimed at instilling academic and functional skills in individuals with ASD. Others help users find support and services or provide news and raise awareness about ASD.


What’s New: A new study explored the use of an app for screening children with ASD. The researchers developed an iPhone app to detect differences in emotions and attentiveness – two areas affected in ASD. The app recorded the reactions of children as they watched movies on an iPhone, and then coded their behaviors. In all, 1,756 families with children between the ages of 1 and 6 years old participated over the course of a year, resulting in 4,441 videos of children in their natural settings. In addition, 5,618 demographic surveys were received from caregivers.


The researchers found:

  • 32 percent of the participants were high risk for ASD, as defined by either having a caregiver report an ASD diagnosis having a high score on the M-CHAT ASD screening.
  • Video clips - which included bubbles, bunnies, mirrors, and toys and songs - were each watched by more than half of the participants.
  • Girls who were high risk for ASD demonstrated significantly less attention to the videos on bubbles, bunnies, and mirrors than girls who were low risk for ASD. This association was not the same for boys.
  • Children with high M-CHAT scores were less likely to have positive emotional reactions to the bubbles movie than their peers with lower scores.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that app-based method could one day be leveraged to help screen for ASD in children. Because the screening would take place in children’s home environments, the results could be more meaningful than in-office interactions.


Image Credit: Kaethe Richter Henning, University of New Mexico, downloaded from the NIH Image Gallery under a Creative Commons license

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Reactions to Robot Could Reveal Internal Patterns in Autism

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on June 7, 2018


Background: Biologically speaking, a genotype is an organism’s underlying genetic identity, made up of inherited factors. A phenotype refers to observable characteristics such as social behavior. An intermediate term endophenotype is used to define stable, measurable traits, observed in multiple individuals, with a clear link to underlying genetic makeup.


What’s New: A new study assessed whether artificial intelligence could help reveal endophenotypes of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  The researchers leveraged a female android robot, known as ACTROID-F, to interact with a total of 46 individuals representing four groups – adolescents (ages 13-17) with ASD, typically developing adolescents, young children (ages 1-5) with ASD, and typically developing young children. The robot was programed to smile, nod, move her eyebrows, and demonstrate other evidence of humaneness while interacting with the participants as they completed various tasks. The researchers administered a questionnaire to the adolescent participants and to the parents of the young children, measuring the degree to which the participants felt that the android displayed humaneness (i.e., whether their impression of her was natural, positive, competent, kind, conscious, human-like, responsible, nice, friendly, intelligent, and biological). They found that scores varied significantly between the participants with ASD and their typically developing peers.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that artificial intelligence could reveal an endophenotype for people with ASD. Further research could provide more information about the underlying genetic causes for these patterned differences.

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Inexpensive Brain Scans Could Predict Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on May 23, 2018

Background: A reliable biomarker for early detection of autism is critical. Electroencephalography (EEG), a technique for recording and mapping electrical activity in the brain – could provide such a measure. During this non-invasive and relatively inexpensive procedure, small metal discs called electrodes are placed on the scalp to detect fluctuations in the voltage given off by the brain’s neurons over time.


What’s New: In a new study, researchers assessed whether EEG data could accurately predict emergence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in very young children. They performed EEG procedure on 99 high-risk children (defined as having an older sibling with ASD) and 89 age-matched controls up to seven times, beginning when the children were as young as 3 months old and ending when the children were 3 years old.


The researchers found:


  • Patterns in EEG data allowed researchers to predict nearly 100 percent of ASD cases prospectively diagnosed using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) at either 18, 24, or 36 months of age.
  • The EEG data also helped predict the severity of ASD as early as 3 months of age.
  • Significant differences were evident between the EEG data of the high-risk versus  the low-risk group. These differences were most pronounced at 12 months of age.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that EEG could be a useful tool, along with behavioral analyses, for diagnosing ASD early. Research has shown that early diagnosis is associated with improved outcomes for children with ASD.

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CDC Data Show Increase in Autism Diagnosis

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on May 9, 2018


Background: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, regularly monitors communities to make estimates of the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among children across the country. In 2016, the CDC estimated ASD prevalence of one in 68 for 8-year-olds based on data collected from 2010 to 2012. Prior to that, the prevalence among 8-year-olds was estimated to be one in 150.


What’s New: The latest CDC data – collected in 2014 – provide a new estimate for the prevalence of ASD among 8-year-old children: one in 59. To arrive at this figure, the researchers reviewed the records of more than 300,000 children in 11 states.


The researchers found:


  • The overall prevalence of ASD in 2014 was 16.8 per 1,000 – or one in 59 – in the sites surveyed.
  • That proportion provides a rough estimate for autism prevalence in the country; however, the results are not entirely generalizable as they come from only 11 sites.
  • The median age at which members of the sample group received an ASD diagnosis was 4 years and 4 months – down slightly from 4 years and 5 months in previous years.
  • The ratio of boys to girls receiving ASD diagnoses decreased slightly – from 4.5:1 in 2002-2012 to 4:1 in 2014.
  • While white children continue to have higher rates of ASD diagnoses than their black and Hispanic peers, that difference became less pronounced in 2014.


Why it’s important: The continued increase in ASD prevalence among children raises a major concern for clinicians and researchers alike. However, the leveling of diagnosis rates among various groups – boys versus girls, white versus minority children – suggests that ASD diagnosis may be improving among previously underrepresented groups. Further surveillance is needed to determine the factors contributing to ASD prevalence increases.

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Older Adults with Autism May Need Psychiatric Care

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on April 26, 2018


Background: While Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is most often diagnosed in childhood, the disorder affects people of all ages. However, very little research has been to assess the needs of older adults with ASD.


What’s New: A recent study looked into co-occurring conditions in people over the age of 50 with ASD. The researchers examined data from more than 600 individuals who were eligible for disability services in Sweden between 2002 and 2012 – all with ASD diagnoses. They aimed to determine the rates of intellectual disability, affective disorders, mental illness, substance abuse, and pharmaceutical prescriptions in this group.


The researchers found:


  • The majority of individuals in this group (57%) had no intellectual disability.
  • Half of the individuals assessed had at least one psychiatric disorder, and the most commonly diagnosed were affective disorders such as bipolar.
  • Most of the group (63%) had received some sort of psychiatric care.
  • Individuals in this group were very likely to have been prescribed some sort of psychotropic medication – with 63% of patients with no diagnosed intellectual disability and 84% of patients with intellectual disability having been prescribed antipsychotic drugs.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that older people living with ASD have a need for psychiatric care services. Further study of this group could find explanations for the patterns in co-occuring conditions (such as higher rates of psychiatric disorders among people with Asperger’s syndrome), and guide therapeutic interventions for this vulnerable group.

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Neurofeedback Training Improves Brain Connectivity in People with ASD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on April 17, 2018


Background: In recent years, researchers and clinicians have begun to leverage on brain imaging technology to provide “neurofeedback.” Through this process, they image the brain for aberrant activity and provide positive feedback when desired activity in that area is achieved. That positive feedback can take the form of a green light or another positive signal to participants.


What’s New: A recent study assessed the effectiveness of neurofeedback using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, in young adult and adolescent males with ASD. The researchers conducted four training sessions over a period of eight days in 17 males with ASD, between the ages of 15 and 25, alongside 11 age-matched controls with typical development. Each training consisted of a series of “rest scans” with no task for the participant, along with a series of “puzzle tasks,” during which the participants attempted to reveal a hidden picture underneath a blank screen. When the participants exhibited the desired brain activity, positive feedback was given via revealing part of the picture and playing an upbeat sound.


The researchers found:


  • The training resulted in improved connectivity in the whole brain, with the greatest differences observed in connectivity between two regions of interest, which previous research has linked to ASD. These changes were not found in the control group.
  • The observed improvements in connectivity continued in subsequent “rest scans.”
  • The improvements in brain connectivity correlated with improvements in the ASD participants’ behavior, as assessed by behavioral questionnaires filled out by parents before and after the series of trainings.


Why it’s important: This study provides further evidence of the role of brain connectivity in ASD. It also points to a potentially effective and non-invasive treatment option to address related behavioral issues. Larger studies including other participants (e.g., children and female groups) could further explore this possibility.

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Children with ASD Are at Greater Risk of Sleep Problems

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on March 7, 2018


Background: Parents and caretakers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, may notice disturbances in their children’s sleep. Among the many co-occurring symptoms in ASD, disturbed sleep can exacerbate existing issues with behavior and attention.


What’s New: A recent study compared sleep disturbances among children with a series of neurodevelopmental disorders. The researchers administered a known sleep questionnaire to the families of 193 children between the ages of 2 and 15 — 26 of whom had Smith-Magenis syndrome, 70 of whom had Angelman syndrome, 30 of whom had ASD, 20 of whom had tuberous sclerosis complex, and 47 of whom demonstrated typical development. The questionnaire assessed the children’s bedtime routines, sleep problems (such as waking during the night or taking more than an hour to fall asleep), and the perceived effectiveness of any attempted treatments.


The researchers found:


  • Sleep problems occurred with greater frequency and consistency in the groups with neurodevelopmental disorders than in the typically developing group. 


  • Forty-three percent of the children with ASD experienced severe night waking problems.


  • Thirty percent of the children with ASD experienced severe issues with settling down to sleep.


  • Children with ASD were more likely than the other groups to experience sleep anxiety, bedtime resistance, and unusual sleep behavior — with rates of 13, 15, and 22 percent, respectively.


  • Other sleep problems (including sleep-disordered breathing) were more common in the ASD group than in the typically developing group, but more common still among children with the other neurodevelopmental disorders.


  • Interestingly, sleep-disordered breathing was linked to gastrointestinal symptoms in the ASD group.

Why it’s important: This study contributes to a growing body of research accounting for a holistic picture of ASD’s symptoms and possible causes. Further research could reveal syndrome-specific profiles, paving the way for targeted therapy.

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Children with ASD Show Patterned Sensory Behavior

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on February 28, 2018


Background: To date, autism is behaviorally diagnosed by trained clinicians using a comprehensive approach that includes systematic and structured observation of a child in the two areas: (1) Social interactions and Communications and (2) Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. The range and degree of autism symptoms falls on a continuum, called the autism spectrum. Therefore, both children with severe deficits as well as those who are mildly affected are considered to have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  However, little research has leveraged physiological markers or sensory information to classify ASD subtypes among children.


What’s New: A recent study explored a process for subtyping preschool aged children based on sensory processing patterns, along with social acumen, communication, motor skills, and adaptive behavior. The study employed a model called latent profile analysis, in which observable variables (such as scores on the Short Sensory Profile) are related to hidden variables (such as an underlying sensory subtype). After analyzing data from 400 children with ASD between the ages of 3 and 6, the researchers were able to define four subtypes:


  • Sensorimotor – The largest subtype identified, this group had high scores in taste-smell sensitivity and sensory seeking, and was under-reactive to sensory stimuli such as heat or sound (hypo-responsivity). Compared to the other groups, this subtype was characterized by decreased language, social, and adaptive behavior skills. The average age of children in this group was 4 years old.


  • Selective Complex – Like the Sensorimotor group, this subtype was characterized by sensory seeking, hyporesponsivity, and decreased language and social skills. However, developments varied among this group, with higher motor skills overall. The average age of children in this group was 4.5 years old.


  • Perceptive-Adaptable – Children in this group showed similar patterns to those in the Selective Complex group – with high scores for motor skills and low scores for social acumen and language. However, the children in this group scored higher in those categories overall, as well as in adaptive behavior. The average age of children in this group was 4 years old.


  • Vigilant-Engaged – The smallest subtype identified, this group had the hghest developmental skills, with high scores for language, adaptive behavior, and social acumen. They had increased sesntivity in auditory-visual stimuli, as well as taste and smell. This was the oldest group, with an average age of just over 4.5 years.

Why it’s important: This study explored a holistic method for sub-typing children with ASD – which could one day have implications on treatment and shed light on the disorder’s underlying cause. However, considering the groups differed significantly by age, these patterns should be researched further to define subtypes more concretely.

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Vitamin D Improves Autism Symptoms in Clinical Trial

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on February 7, 2018


Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is associated of differences in language, behavior and social cognition. For some, these symptoms are quite mild, while others require lifelong care. As such, many families seek therapies to address the difficulties their loved ones face. While no standardized treatments exist for individuals with ASD, several treatment strategies have been developed, specific to the type and severity of symptoms.


What’s New: Several studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency is common in children with ASD. Now, a clinical trial proves that link – and suggests that vitamin D supplementation could improve ASD symptoms. The researchers assigned 109 children with ASD between the ages of 3 and 10 to one of two groups. The treatment group received a vitamin D supplement of up to 5000 IU daily, while the control group received a placebo.


After four months, the researchers found:


  • ASD symptoms – as measured by the Child Autism Rating Scale, Aberrant Behavior Checklist, Social Responsiveness Scale, and Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist – improved in the group that took vitamin D, but not in the control group.


  • Blood tests taken before and after the trial showed no major differences in biological markers (such as white blood cell count and glucose levels) between the two groups at either timepoint.


  • The children in the treatment arm tolerated a daily dose of 300 IU per kilogram of weight with few side effects.


Why it’s important: This is clinical trial explored the potential of vitamin D3 to aid symptoms in children with ASD. Future studies could refine this treatment strategy and explore the link between ASD and vitamin D deficiency.

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