Eye-Tracking Study in Infants Finds Pattern for ASD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on June 12, 2019

Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by differences in communication, social interaction and behavior. Although the average age for a child to receive an ASD diagnosis is 4 years old, researchers have uncovered patterns in infants and toddlers who go on to be diagnosed. One potential indicator among the youngest children is differences in visual attention, or gaze.


What’s New: A recent study identified patterns in the joint attention – the process of looking at something alongside another person – among 10-month-old infants. The researchers conducted a series of tasks with 112 infants, 81 of whom had older siblings with ASD. Tasks were designed to assess the infants’ response to cues for joint attention (such as turning to look at a puppet), as well as how the infants initiated joint attention themselves (such as giving the infant an opportunity to point at flashing lights).


Repeating the assessments at 14 and 18 months and following up at 36 months, the researchers found:


  • 22 of the children whose older siblings had ASD were later diagnosed, as well.
  • Responses to cues for joint attention were not linked to rates of ASD diagnoses, but were linked to familial risk (i.e., infants who had older siblings with ASD were more likely to have low scores on this task, whether or not they were ultimately diagnosed themselves).
  • The infants’ tendency to initiate joint attention was markedly different among those ultimately diagnosed with ASD, who had both lower scores in this area and atypical development of this skill between 10 and 18 months.


Why it’s important: This study suggests observable indicators of ASD may appear as early as 10 months of age. Future research could lead to earlier diagnosis and intervention.

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Molecular Biomarker May Predict GI Symptoms in ASD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on April 26, 2019

Background: For decades, researchers have suspected a link between Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. The GI symptoms frequently reported in ASD include abdominal pain, constipation, chronic diarrhea, and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Some people with ASD also experience inflammation of the intestines, which respond at various rates to anti-inflammatory therapies.


What’s New: A recent study identified a biomoarker with the potential to predict which individuals with ASD and GI issues would respond quickly or more slowly to anti-inflammatory treatment. The researchers conducted molecular analyses of colon tissue samples from 35 children with ASD. Twenty of those children were found previously to respond slowly to oral anti-inflammatory medicines for GI symptoms, and 15 were fast responders.


Focusing on differences in the early stages of gene expression, the researchers found:


  • Fast responders with constipation experienced timely relief after anti-inflammatory therapy, whereas constipation persisted on the right side of slow responders’ colons after treatment.
  • Fast responders had greater activity of genetic material related to inflammatory and immune responses
  • Slow responders had an increased number of genetic pathways related to the movement of the colon
  • The presence of a single molecule could predict whether the children were slow responders to anti-inflammatory therapy.

Why it’s important: This study revealed underlying differences in genetic expression within a group of children with ASD that resulted in predictable GI outcomes. Further research may lead to specialized therapy for people with ASD and GI symptoms.

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Abilify Effective Against Behavioral Symptoms of ASD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on February 27, 2019

Background: While no standardized treatment exists to treat the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a range of therapeutic strategies may be employed, depending on the specifics of a particular ASD case. Because of the overlap between ASD and certain mental health conditions, some research has focused on the possibility of treating ASD with existing pharmaceutical therapies.


What’s New: A recent review compiled evidence from a series of clinical studies and trials evaluating the safety and efficacy of the drug aripiprazole in treating people with ASD. Aripiprazole, manufactured by Otsuka under the brand name Abilify, is an antipsychotic drug commonly used to treat the symptoms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, and major depression. In recent years, aripiprazole was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat irritability in children and adolescents with ASD.


Combining the results from three studies evaluating results in 408 participants between 1995 and 2017, the researchers found:


  • Aripiprazole was safe and well-tolerated among the study participants.
  • Aripiprazole was effective in treating behavioral ASD symptoms, including irritability, hyperactivity, noncompliance, and repetitive movements.
  • Aripiprazole was not effective in treating lethargy or social withdrawal in participants with ASD.


Why it’s important: This article suggests that aripiprazole may be an effective treatment strategy for some people with behavioral issues related to ASD. Future research on a larger sample of individuals could clarify the best contexts for leveraging aripiprazole.

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Study Sheds Light on Development of Neurons in ASD

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on January 14, 2019

Background: Stem cells are cells that have the potential to grow into many of the body’s different cell types during the process of development. To better understand development, scientists often rely on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are adult cells that have been reprogrammed to emulate embryonic stem cells. This allows scientists to model the development of diseases and other conditions outside of the body.


What’s New: A recent study explored the development of brain cells, or neurons, derived from iPSCs taken from people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as compared to those from their typically developing peers. The researchers took skin cell samples from 8 people with ASD and 5 people without ASD between the ages of 6 and 19. They transformed those cells into iPSCs, from which they coaxed neuronal cells.


In observing the development of the neuronal cells, the researchers found key differences in the cells that came from people with ASD, including:


  • The cells grew to a bigger size with more complex branches.
  • Networks of the cells behaved differently, with certain brain development processes beginning earlier.
  • Those brain processes involved genes that have been associated with ASD.


Why it’s important: This study sheds light on the early development of ASD. Future studies could refine strategies for earlier diagnosis.


Image: Neuronal cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/National Institutes of Health)

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