Wednesday, August 21st, 2013
Children who have a big brother or big sister with an autism spectrum disorder face an increased risk of developing such a disorder themselves, according to a new study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. The study, of more than 1.5 million children in Denmark, found that sibs of kids diagnosed with autism had an almost seven-fold increased risk of developing autism as well.
This research comes on the heels of a recent study that found that women who undergo labor induction may be more likely to give birth to children with autism spectrum disorders.
Here’s more on the sibling study from TIME.com:
For parents, the findings raise difficult questions about how proactive they should be in screening for the disease among their younger children if older siblings are affected. Alycia Halladay, senior director, environmental and clinical sciences for Autism Speaks, says parents who have already had a child diagnosed on the spectrum should alert their doctor to the family history. During check-ups, when a doctor asks about inherited disorders like cystic fibrosis, they now typically include autism on the check-list.
Mothers of autistic children can also take steps during pregnancy to lower the risk of autism in their next offspring, such as taking prenatal folic acid and avoiding overexposure to toxins. That attention could even extend to the infants’ first few years, since studies suggest that some intensive behavior therapies can help to mitigate the symptoms of autism. “We know that early intervention can make a real lifetime of difference. So be very vigilant during that child’s life, all the way from birth to the well baby check-ups, six months, 12 months, and 18 months,” says Halladay. “Make sure you are watching for the signs and symptoms of autism. Consult your pediatrician, and if you do notice the signs and symptoms of autism you can receive help free of charge from a state-based early intervention agency.”
Researchers are also developing tests that can detect the genetic risk factors associated with the disorder, and more of these biomarkers may become available as additional gene-based contributors emerge. Scientists from University of Utah and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, for example, recently identified 24 new gene variants associated with autism spectrum disorders in January.
Image: Toddler and baby, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, August 13th, 2013
Women who give birth after having labor induced may be slightly more likely to have children who are later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. More from USA Today:
The increased autism risk likely stems from an underlying problem with the pregnancy, rather than any of the methods used to jump-start labor, says lead author Simon Gregory of the Duke Institute of Molecular Physiology.
It’s possible that “infants destined to develop autism are less likely to send out the correct biochemical signals for normal progression of labor,” says Tara Wenger, a pediatric genetics fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who wasn’t involved in the new study, published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Pregnancy complications increase the risk of many developmental disorders, says Michael Rosanoff, associate director for public health research and scientific review at Autism Speaks, an advocacy group.
And a growing number of studies now link autism to a variety of things that can compromise the health of a pregnancy, says Rosanoff, who wasn’t involved in the study, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. Researchers are increasingly looking at prenatal risk factors for autism, because this period plays a key role in brain development. Science has ruled out vaccines as a cause of autism, he says.
But studies have found that children are at higher risk for autism if they are born early or very small; if they are in medical distress during delivery; if they have older mothers or fathers; or if they are born less than a year after an older sibling. Autism risk also goes up if a mother has diabetes or high blood pressure; is obese; is exposed to significant air pollution during pregnancy; had low levels of folic acid; takes medications such as an anti-seizure drug called valproic acid; or makes antibodies toxic to the fetal brain.
Gregory notes that his findings are still preliminary and that women shouldn’t resist a doctor’s recommendation about jump-starting labor out of fear of autism.
Image: Woman in labor, via Shutterstock
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Thursday, August 8th, 2013
Girls who suffer from the eating disorder anorexia often exhibit some traits and behaviors that are similar to those who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to research by Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre. The anorexic girls, Cohen found, suffered an above average number of autistic traits. More from Reuters:
They were also found to have an above-average interest in systems and order, and below-average scores in empathy – a profile similar, but less pronounced, to that seen in people with autism, suggesting the two disorders may have common underlying features, Baron-Cohen said.
“Traditionally, anorexia has been viewed purely as an eating disorder. This is quite reasonable, since the girls’ dangerously low weight and their risk of malnutrition or even death has to be the highest priority,” he said.
“But this new research is suggesting that underlying the surface behavior, the mind of a person with anorexia may share a lot with the mind of a person with autism. In both conditions, there is a strong interest in systems. In girls with anorexia, they have latched onto a system that concerns body weight, shape, and food intake.”
People with autism have varying levels of impairment across three main areas – social interaction and empathy or understanding, repetitive behavior and interests, and language and communication.
Cohen noted that autism and anorexia share certain features, such as rigid attitudes and behaviors, a tendency to be very self-focused, and a fascination with detail. Both disorders also share similar differences in the structure and function of brain regions involved in social perception.
The findings, researchers say, could help in the development of new treatments for anorexia.
Image: Anorexia sign, via Shutterstock
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Monday, July 29th, 2013
The diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) could be improved by a new technique that takes advantage of the disrupted motor skills that autistic children commonly have. Time.com reports on the new technique, which was developed by researchers at Rutgers University and Indiana University:
Elizabeth Torres, a computational neuroscientist at Rutgers University, explores how movements reflect the way people interact with and sense their environments. Patterns in these movements can reflect brain processes and connections, and that could be helpful in understanding autism.
“The way that we study the brain is quite disembodied. We pay attention to the central nervous system—brain and spinal chord–and we don’t pay attention to the peripheral nervous system,” says Torres, referring to the network of nerves involved in relaying sensory information such as touch, sight and smell. “This plays a pretty important function in self-regulation and autonomy, and it is not often considered in autism and in much of brain research.”
Movement can influences our perception of the world around us, and our ability to sense the environment can also change our movements. “Movement is a form of sensory input that travels back to the brain as a form of feedback, continuously,” she says.
The central nervous system constantly receives and processes this feedback in order to produce the appropriate actions. During normal development, this system learns to anticipate sensory consequences, like how a baby learns to suction its mouth for feeding. But this process may not mature in the same way in autistic children, the researchers discovered.
In two papers published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, Torres, working with a computer scientist and physicist, described a way to both diagnose autism via movement patterns, and potentially treat the condition using similar action-based strategies. They developed a method that focuses on the spontaneous movements that autistic children, even infants, make unintentionally. The research team measured tiny fluctuations of movement among autistic patients, and compared these movements to those of normally developing subjects.
This strategy was able to diagnose autism among children aged three to 25, but even more exciting was the fact that the movement profiles were unique enough to distinguish how severely affected children were by the developmental disorder. All the autistic participants — regardless of their age — were essentially stunted in their ability to process movement by age three. By age four, these patterns in normally developed youngsters should be predictive and reliable. By college age, they are highly predictive, and adults can anticipate how their actions impact their environment and vice versa. But kids with autism are not successfully forming these connections.
Image: Child waving, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013
Oxytocin, also known as the “trust hormone,” is not found to have significant benefit in treating the symptoms of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have found. More from ScienceDaily.com:
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“Many parents of children with autism are already obtaining and using oxytocin nasal spray with their child, and clinical trials of the spray’s effects are underway all over the world. Oxytocin has been touted as a possible new treatment, but its effects may be limited,” [Psychology] Professor Mark Dadds says.
Autism is a complex condition of unknown cause in which children exhibit reduced interest in other people, impaired social communication skills and repetitive behaviours.
To determine its suitability as a general treatment Professor Dadds’ team conducted a randomised controlled clinical trial of 38 boys aged between seven and 16 years of age with autism. Half were given a nasal spray of oxytocin on four consecutive days.
The study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
“We found that, compared to a placebo, oxytocin did not significantly improve emotion recognition, social interaction skills, repetitive behaviours, or general behavioural adjustment,” says Professor Dadds.