Virtual Reality May Ease Fears in Autistic Youth
By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on August 25, 2014
Background: Anxiety is one of the most common conditions to occur alongside Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in children and adolescents with the disorder. The condition can manifest in the form of specific phobias, such as fear of riding in cars or fear of birds. These phobias can interfere with daily life and exacerbate the core symptoms of ASD.
What’s New: On July 2, 2014, the digital journal PLOS ONE published a paper evaluating an emerging technique to address anxiety in young people with ASD. For the study, nine boys aged 7 to 13 underwent cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—an existing treatment approach shown to reduce anxiety associated with ASD—together with five sessions in a proprietary virtual reality environment (VRE). Anxiety questionnaires administered periodically in the 16 months following the treatment revealed that eight of the nine participants were newly able to tackle their specific phobias, and four overcame them completely.
Why it’s important: This study lends support to previous findings that CBT can be effective in reducing anxiety in young people with ASD. Importantly, a combination therapy of CBT and VRE could be more effective than a single therapy. Future research using a control group could validate CBT in conjunction with VRE as an effective therapy to address specific phobias.
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Making Connections: Target Practice
By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on August 13, 2014
Background: An adult’s brain contains billions of nerve cells, called neurons, intricately connected to carry the signals controlling our senses and behaviors. During embryonic development, the nervous system begins to take shape around the fifth week of clinical gestation. Very little research has demonstrated how neurons of this early nervous system establish proper connections in the healthy brain – and how mistakes may lead to neurological disorders.
What’s New: On July 31, 2014, a study exploring the birth order of nerve cells appeared in the journal Cell Reports online ahead of print. The researchers focused on the cells connecting the eyes to the brain—called retinal ganglion cells (RGCs)—in mice. They found that early-born RGCs sampled many sites before establishing their final connection with other brain cells. By contrast, later-born RGCs were selective from the start in establishing neurological connections.
Why it’s important: This study suggests that the order in which brain cells form is important to how neurons establish proper neurological configuration. Future studies could determine whether the neurological dysfunction observed in disorders like autism are linked to differences in brain cells’ birth order.
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