Gut Microorganisms Linked to Brain Function

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on January 18, 2018


Background: Families of individuals who have Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, often notice that they have atypical feeding patterns and gastrointestinal (GI) dysfunction, such as chronic constipation. A number of recent studies have reported significant number of children with having at least one GI symptom. Researchers are actively looking into the link between how gut function could alter brain function and behavior.


What’s New: A recent study in rats explored how different compositions of microorganisms in the gut —  the “good bacteria” that aid in digestion — could affect brain function. The researchers fed 22 male rats one of four different diets: a balanced diet, a high-fat diet, a high-fiber diet, or a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. They collected and analyzed fecal samples before and three weeks after the experiment began, and studied the brains of the animals after three weeks on the diets using sophisticated imaging techniques.


The researchers found:


• Rats who ate the high-fiber and the high-protein diets had different functioning, when compared to the rats who ate the balanced diet, of the left frontal neocortex — a part of the brain associated with higher-order functions such as language and generation of motor commands.


• While those same differences weren’t observed in the brains of the rats who ate the high-fat diet, the scans revealed different functioning in several areas of the brain in that group, as compared to the rats who ate the balanced diet.


• Additional differences were observed in the brains of the rats who ate the high-protein diet, including distinct functioning of the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right sides of the brain and is associated with vision, eye movement, attention, and other functions.


• There were significant differences in the microorganisms present in the fecal matter of the rats from each diet group at the end of the experiment. When comparing the composition of the fecal matter taken at the beginning and the end of the experiment, the researchers could accurately predict which diet each rat had been assigned.


Why it’s important: While this study did not directly study ASD, it provides clues regarding the connection between GI symptoms and the cause of the disorder itself. Future studies could refine this link and potentially lay the groundwork for therapies targeting the gut.


Feature image depicts beneficial gut bacteria and is the work of Darryl Leja of the National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health. The image has been adapted for this page.


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Cognitive Therapy Boosts Outcomes for Adults with Autism

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


Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is marked by differences in the processing and communication of both social and non-social information. While a wealth of research has focused on the benefits of early intervention for children with ASD, relatively few studies have explored the effects of therapies on affected adults.


What’s New: A recent study evaluated a technology-based rehabilitation approach known as cognitive enhancement therapy (CET) among adults with ASD. The researchers administered therapy over the course of 18 months to 54 individuals, between the ages of 16 and 44, identified as verbal with ASD. The participants for CET underwent computer-based neurocognitivie training along with group-based training focused on social cognition development.  Interestingly, the outcome of CET was compared to that from another therapy, enriched supportive therapy involving improvement of coping skills in individual and group-based sessions.

The researchers found:


Both forms of therapy were linked to improvements in neurocognitive function (measured by MATRICS Consensus Cognitive Battery), with the participants who underwent CET enjoying greater gains after 9 months, but not after 18.


  • The greatest improvements among the participants who underwent CET were in attention and processing speed.
  • Following the trial, the participants who underwent CET were rated higher than the other participants in managing emotions, emotional intelligence, tolerance, and perception.
  • Individuals who received CET were much more likely to secure employment following after 9 months of the trial.

Why it’s important: This study suggests that cognitive enhancement theory could improve outcomes for adults with ASD, meriting further research.

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Autism Symptom Severity and Mothers’ Immune Response

By Chelsea Toledo, M.A. on December 22, 2017


Background: What role the non-genetic factors play towards development of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is a major concernSeveral recent studies have suggested a link between illness or infection during pregnancy and the likelihood that the resulting child have ASD. However, few have established a link between mothers’ history of immune activity and the severity of social differences in the children who go on to receive a diagnosis.


What’s New: A recent retrospective study explored that potential link – comparing the severity of social symptoms in 220 children with ASD against their mothers’ histories of immune activity while pregnant. The researchers administered the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-Generic (ADOS-G) to the children, and had their caregivers complete the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) to assess the severity of impairments in the following five areas: awareness, cognition, communication, motivation, and mannerisms. Finally, primary caregivers completed family medical histories as part of the study.


The researchers found:


  • SRS scores were higher (indicating greater severity of social symptoms) in children whose mothers had a history of asthma and allergies.
  • Symptoms were most severe in the areas of cognition and mannerisms for these children.
  • Autoimmune conditions among mothers did not affect autism symptoms in children.


Why it’s important: This is the first study to correlate the severity of ASD social symptoms with maternal immune activity. Future studies following mothers and children over time could further probe this link to shed light on possible interventions.

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Robot coach for Job Seekers with ASD?

By Paras Kaul and Chelsea Toledo on December 13, 2017
Robot_News Story


Background: People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) sometimes experience difficulty seeking employment due to differences in social and verbal skills. Early evidence suggests that leveraging robots in mock job interviews can help to train individuals with ASD for the actual experience.


What’s New: A recent study explored the possibility of leveraging artificial intelligence as a preparatory aid for job seekers with ASD. Fifteen participants between the ages of 18 and 25 with ASD completed a mock job application with questions about one of six jobs they chose to pursue. For five days they interviewed with either the robot or the human at the same time each day. Researchers measured salivary cortisol levels – a biomarker for stress and anxiety -  at the same time of day after each mock interview to see if there were any changes.


After their interviews, participants received questionnaires about their performance. Responses from participants who met with the robots indicated improvements in their self-confidence with somewhat reduced levels of stress and anxiety. While cortisol levels were lower among the individuals who interviewed with a robot, the hormone spiked on Day 2 of the exercise – a possible indication of a physical reaction needed for an individual with ASD to perform.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that the stress, anxiety, and self-confidence people with ASD experience in job interviews can be reduced with training from android robots that look like humans. Training in mock job interviews with robots may be useful in addressing social and communicative challenges that prevent the ASD population from getting jobs in the real-world. This possibility –  as well as the link between cortisol spikes and interview performance – merits further investigation via larger studies.

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Symptom Profile in Adults with Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on December 7, 2017
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Background: With increasing prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the past decades, a growing number of families face concerns about caring for children with ASD as they enter adulthood. One question for families and clinicians is whether the conditions that oftentimes accompany ASD – including tantrums, seizure, sleep and gastrointestinal (GI) disorders– will persist as the children age.


What’s new: A recent study tracked a number of symptoms and conditions that tend to accompany ASD in older adults over time. The retrospective study leveraged 35 years of medical records belonging to 74 adults with ASD, obtained with permission from a community agency serving this group. The researchers made several important observations:


  • Behavioral and psychiatric symptoms (including self-harm and tantrums) decreased significantly across the board as the individuals aged.
  • Physical symptoms differed somewhat among participants older than 50 when compared to their younger peers; the older group experienced more GI symptoms, while the younger group was more likely to experience diabetes and hay fever, and to exhibit physical aggression.

Why it’s important: This study suggests that the behavioral and psychiatric symptoms observed in children with ASD may not persist as the children get older. It also points to possible differences between middle aged and older people with ASD, which merit further study.

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Study Explores Brain Activity Related to Joint Attention

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on November 9, 2017
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Background: Imagine a man and a woman having a conversation at a coffee shop while waiting for their orders. While they are making eye contact, the woman’s gaze shifts to the counter, where the man’s coffee has now appeared. The man then turns his attention to the drink, as well. This process is called joint attention – the shared focus on an object, cued by a verbal or non-verbal signal from one individual to another. Part of the communicative differences observed in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) arises due to the lack of shared attention.


What’s new: On October 19, 2017, the journal Scientific Reports published a study that assessed the underlying brain activity of eleven 6 to 9 year old boys with high-functioning ASD in situations that called for joint attention. Over a period of six months, the researchers held weekly treatment sessions: the first half of the session was devoted to play-based activity, and the second half to administration of a tablet-based therapy.


To assess joint attention, the researchers recorded the children’s response to one therapist looking at the child and then gesturing to another therapist (responding joint attention), to having a story read by one therapist while another therapist acted the story out (initiating joint attention), and to other scenarios eliciting joint attention. In the second half of the session, they administered a tablet-based therapy game (called GOLIAH, based in the MICHELANGO framework that uses wearable technology to track brainwaves and eye movements).


The researchers collected data on brain activity and eye movements at the beginning and the end of the six-month study. They found that:

  • Initiating and responding joint attention have both specialized and overlapping brain activity patterns
  • There were changes in brain activity after treatment
  • The trends in brain activity following treatment corresponded with modified eye movements


Why it’s important: This pilot study suggests that an approach integrating neuronal and eye-tracking data can provide a clearer picture of the brain’s activity during joint attention. Future studies with a larger sample of participants could shed light on the underlying reasons that joint attention differs in people in ASD – and could lay the groundwork for therapies targeting this skill.

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Tablet-Based Autism Research Reveals Social Insights

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on October 24, 2017
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Background: Babies are drawn to sights and sounds of the social world. A mother’s voice, a friendly face, the sound of laughter—all of these social experiences are important for a baby’s development. In toddlers and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the amount of attention given to social matters is reduced. But to what extent, and at what ages, social interest differs is an active area of study. Newer technologies, such as tablet computers, have opened the door for novel ways to look at social preferences in children with ASD.


What’s new: On June 21, 2017, the journal Scientific Reports published a tablet-based study of children’s desire for social rewards. The researchers enrolled 63 children, ages 14 to 68 months, into the study (25 children with ASD and 38 typically developing children). Each child pressed buttons on a tablet screen that caused social or non-social pictures to appear. As the children played with the tablet, the researchers recorded the children’s social behaviors, such as smiles, vocalizations, and eye contact.


The children with ASD pressed buttons for non-social images at a higher rate than for social images, whereas the typically developing children lacked a preference for social versus non-social. For both groups of children, increased social image selection linked to an increase in social behaviors while playing.


Why it’s important: Many past studies of social interest in children with ASD relied on older children and passive viewing of images. This unique, tablet-based approach allowed researchers to test social reward-seeking in a younger group of children. The results are consistent with earlier findings that children with ASD favor non-social stimuli.

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Babies with Autism View Social Scenes Differently

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on September 25, 2017
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Background: Humans are fundamentally social creatures. Starting in infancy, faces are critical for communicating; even before acquiring most basic skills, babies learn to “read” the emotions of others by watching their eyes and mouths. The brain's social pathway attaches meaning to social signals, motivates us to respond to social signals, and ultimately guides our social behavior.


What’s new: On July 20, 2017, the journal Nature published a study exploring the basis for how young children with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD) processed such social information. The researchers tracked the eye movements of a total of 250 typically developing toddlers—including 82 monozygotic twins, 84 dizygotic twins, and 84 non-siblings—as they watched videos depicting social situations. They found distinct patterns in the eye tracking results based on the children’s genetics: compared to dizygotic twins, identical twins within the sample had very similar eye movements, especially when it came to their focus on eyes and mouths. Furthermore, the researchers compared eye-tracking data from 88 children with ASD. They found that the characteristic eye movement patterns in identical twins—the focus on eyes and mouths—were markedly reduced in children with ASD.


Why it’s important: In a series of well-designed experiments using eye-tracking measures, the authors of this study shed light on the genetic underpinnings of social information seeking in developing children. The researchers also provide evidence regarding how this trait may be altered in autism.

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Extra Stable Brain Activity Patterns Found in ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD and Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on August 14, 2017
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Background: Even at rest, the brain never really rests. Brain cells, or neurons, use chemicals to shoot information at lightening speed throughout the brain all the time. This brain activity occurs in special patterns that are related to the different functions of the brain. Scientists think that measuring patterns of brain activity during a resting state can offer clues about why some people have autism.


What’s new: On July 5, 2017, the journal Nature Communications released a study comparing resting brain activity in typically developing individuals versus their peers with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers looked at brain imaging data taken in a resting state from a total of 50 male individuals between the ages of 18 and 39.


The researchers used a special type of mathematical formula to make brain activity look like peaks and valleys on a topographical map. They found that individuals with ASD had differently sized peaks and valleys as compared to their typically developing peers. This particular method of analyzing brain activity allowed autism identification—based solely on brain scans—with about 85% accuracy. The researchers also found a correlation between the peak and valley sizes and the severity of autism symptoms.


Why it’s important: The study is an important step forward in establishing ways to extract information from brain scans, which in this case was a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan. The findings of the study suggest a stability of brain activity pattern that differs between typically developing individuals and those with autism spectrum disorder. These differences may one day aid autism diagnosis or indicate severity along the spectrum, but additional investigation is required.

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