October, 2015

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Study Suggests Mobile App Helps Social Interaction

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on October 29, 2015
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Background: Advances in mobile computing, such as iPad, hold promise as assistive or adaptive tools for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Numerous ASD-related apps are commercially available. However, very few studies have rigorously tested their utility for improving social skills in people with the disorder.


What’s new: An upcoming issue of Association of Computing Machinery Transactions will include a study exploring the potential of a mobile app to improve social interaction in children with ASD. The researchers grouped eight children with ASD into four pairs, and alternated activities for each pair over a period of four weeks. The children had blocks to play with on weeks one and three and a two-player iPad game called Zody to play with on weeks two and four. Interviews conducted at the end of the four-week period suggested that the iPad game – which required players to take on collaborative roles – helped improve social interaction skills in the participants.


Why it’s important: This study may provide a proof of the principle that electronic assistive technologies can help improve social interactions in children with ASD. Future studies with larger participant groups could demonstrate this concept further and refine the use of specific assistive technologies.

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UK Study Finds Predictors for Antipsychotic Use in ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on October 22, 2015


Background: About one tenth of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Europe receive antipsychotic medication. In the United States, that fraction climbs to one third. To date, two drugs—risperidone and aripiprazole—are are approved by the FDA to treat irritability in children with ASD, but little is known about antipsychotic use for other co-occurring conditions.


What’s new: On October 15, 2015, the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry published a study detailing antipsychotic use in children with ASD. United Kingdom (UK) researchers examined medical records for 3,482 UK children diagnosed with ASD between 2008 and 2013. They found that children with ASD in the UK who were hyperkinetic, psychotic, depressive, obsessive compulsive, or who had tic disorders were more likely to take antipsychotic medications. Antipsychotic prescription also followed higher levels of aggression, self-injurious behaviors, poor general functioning, and increased parental concern for the child’s symptoms.


Why it’s important: To date, this is the largest study to correlate antipsychotic use with ASD and co-occurring conditions. An overarching goal with studies like these is to give clinicians the necessary tools to predict who might benefit most from available therapy options. Additionally, the results of this study may inform clinical trial design, as clinical trials frequently omit children with any comorbid conditions.

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Repetition May Impair Learning in Autism, Study Finds

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on October 15, 2015
2015_10_repetitive learning


Background: Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to shift one’s thinking in response to a change in stimuli. Studies have shown that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often struggle with cognitive flexibility. For example, after successfully completing a drill of identifying an object in a picture, individuals with ASD don’t always transfer that knowledge when asked to identify the same object in another picture.


What’s New: On October, 2015, the journal Nature Neuroscience published a study exploring the roots of cognitive inflexibility as it relates to ASD. The researchers administered a test to 23 high-functioning adults with ASD and 19 typically developing controls, asking them to locate a set of diagonal bars among horizontal bars on a screen multiple times over a period of eight days, with the location of the target switching on the fifth day. The ASD group performed similarly to the control group over the first four days, but not on days five through eight. However, a second group of participants and controls underwent a similar test – only with “dummy” screens shown in between tasks – and the ASD group did not experience the same dip in performance when the target switched locations.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that, while repetition may be an effective way to teach a single concept, repeated stimuli may in fact derail longer-term learning for people with ASD. Future studies could lay the groundwork for less repetitive learning models to aid in the education of people with ASD.


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Luteolin May Improve Behavior in ASD Subgroup

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on October 8, 2015


Background: Individualized management is an important goal for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). While we don’t yet have standardized ASD subgroups, several lines of evidence suggest that inflammatory molecules may serve to distinguish some ASD populations.


What’s new: On September 29, 2015, the journal Translational Psychiatry published a study on the effect of luteolin supplementation on children with ASD. The antioxidant luteolin is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent naturally found in some foods, including celery, broccoli, and navel oranges. The researchers found that a subgroup of children with ASD had high blood levels of inflammatory molecules—known as IL-6 and TNF—which decreased significantly after luteolin treatment. The children with the greatest decrease in IL-6 and TNF showed the most improvement in communication, daily living skills, and social behaviors.


Why it’s important: This study combines two important topics in autism research: subgroup identification and individualized treatment. An inflammation-based biomarker in individuals with ASD could help predict prognosis following anti-inflammatory treatments.   The results of this study support the need for a larger, double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial.

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Newly Found Biomarker May Aid in Autism Diagnosis

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on October 1, 2015


Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by social, communicative, and behavioral differences. Research has shown that certain activity within the brain – where calcium signaling plays a significant role in communication between neurons – is dysfunctional in ASD, impacting learning and memory.


What’s New: On September 22, 2015, the journal Translational Psychiatry published a study exploring a defect in calcium release as a possible biomarker for ASD. The researchers examined skin cells from male Caucasian donors with different genetic variations of the disorder, as well as from typically developing controls. They discovered a defect in calcium signaling within cellular membranes in the skin samples taken from donors with ASD.


Why it’s important: The cellular location of the defect – in a part of the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum – has been linked to cognitive, digestive, and immune function. While no widely accepted biomarkers currently exist for ASD, further study of the calcium signaling defect could lead to early diagnostics and targeted treatments for the disorder.

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