July, 2016

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ASD Traits with Anxiety Linked to Reward Areas in Brain

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on July 26, 2016


Background: The brain has specific areas that help you think about rewards, such as reward anticipation or outcomes from receiving an award. This is called reward processing. Previous studies have shown that reward processing is different in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But it’s not clear if this is due to ASD alone, or conditions that sometimes occur with ASD. For example, nearly 40% of people with ASD also have anxiety.


What’s new: A new study published on June 28, 2016, suggests that ASD and anxiety share some regions of the brain associated with reward processing. Researchers looked at brain activity from 70 teenagers with high ASD traits and 1402 teenagers with low ASD traits. They found a unique pattern of activation in reward-related areas of the brain in those with high ASD traits combined with anxiety. But not all neuroimaging findings were shared when ASD traits and anxiety were present on their own.


Why it’s important: The results of this study point to patterns of brain activity related to reward processing that might link ASD with anxiety. If reproducible, these findings may allow doctors to use the patterns seen during neuroimaging to help diagnose specific subgroups of ASD, such as ASD with co-occurring conditions.

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Lab-Generated Stem Cells Hold Clues to Autism

By Chelsea E. Toledo on July 19, 2016


Background: Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are mature adult cells that have been reprogrammed by scientists to behave like embryonic stem cells – which have the potential to become nearly any cell type in the body, including neurons. Scientists rely upon iPSCs to learn more about rare or mysterious conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by studying cells related to the condition.


What’s New: On June 29, 2016, the journal Molecular Neurobiology published a study using iPSCs to reveal clues about genetic expression, neural makeup and electrical activity in people with ASD. The researchers took skin cells from three male children who had ASD but no other neurodevelopmental conditions, as well as from their three male siblings without ASD. They then reprogrammed those skin cells to behave as embryonic stem cells and monitored their changes. In examining the neurons generated from these iPSCs, the researchers found differences in electrical activity and expression of genes related to signaling between cells in the participants with ASD compared to their typically developing siblings.


Why it’s important: This study identified 161 genes expressed differently in people with ASD, with similar features observed in the neurons of all three unrelated study participants with ASD. Future studies working with larger participant groups could further refine the cellular features differentiating cells of people with ASD during gestation, pointing to the precise process by which the disorder develops.

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ASD Risk Increases in Very Premature Babies

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on July 12, 2016


Background: Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that about 1 in 67 of 8-year-olds – or 1.5 percent – have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. Boys are about four times more likely than girls to receive a diagnosis. The disorder, usually diagnosed during childhood, is characterized by social, behavioral and communicative differences.


What’s New: In a new study published May 25, 2016, researchers found that the prevalence of ASD was much higher – at about 7 percent – in children who were born before 27 weeks gestation. The risk of meeting ASD diagnostic criteria was higher the earlier a child was born.


The researchers performed an ASD screening on 889 10-year-olds who had been born at 23-27 weeks gestation, as well as follow-up diagnostic interviews on eligible children who met the screening criteria. They found that 61 children in the eligible sample met the diagnostic criteria for ASD, resulting in a prevalence of 7.1% in the entire group. The risk of meeting ASD diagnostic criteria increased the more prematurely children were born, with a prevalence of 15% in children born at 23-24 weeks gestation. About twice as many boys than girls met the diagnostic criteria for ASD.


Why it’s important: The overall prevalence of ASD was much higher in this sample of children born prematurely than in general population – with a much smaller ratio of boys to girls receiving diagnoses. This study suggests that children born prematurely should receive enhanced screening for ASD. Future studies could determine the underlying factors putting premature children at a greater risk.

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