Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
The hormone oxytocin may help the social brain functioning of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), a new Yale University study has found. More from The Boston Globe:
Years of research has revealed the potent effects of oxytocin, a hormone that is naturally released during childbirth and has been nicknamed the “love hormone” for the role it appears to play in pair bonding, whether between couples or mother and baby. Then researchers began to administer the hormone to people in non-romantic situations, to see whether it would change their behavior.
The results were intriguing, suggesting that it helped increase cooperation and trust. As the hormone’s ability to enhance social responses was replicated in other studies, researchers began to wonder whether oxytocin might be helpful for people with autism spectrum disorders, which are characterized by impaired social functioning.
In the new work, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Yale researchers measured what happened in the brains of 17 children with autism spectrum disorder when they inhaled the hormone or a placebo, and were then directed to perform tasks in a brain scanner that used functional MRI technology. One task was designed to use the social parts of the brain—the children were asked to intuit the emotion a person was experiencing by looking at a photo of their eyes. In another, they were simply asked to identify a vehicle.
What the researchers found was that a single spray of the hormone increased functioning in the social parts of the brain when the children were confronted with the eye-reading task, while the activity in those areas decreased during the vehicle-naming task. Their performance on the task was not different, but researchers think the brain signals indicate that oxytocin made the social stimuli more relevant and rewarding.
“What’s happening in the brain, we think, is that oxytocin is improving how well we are tuning in to social stimuli, to a social world,” said Ilanit Gordon, an experimental psychologist who did the work at the Yale Child Study Center and is now an assistant professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Image: Smiling boy, via Shutterstock
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Wednesday, November 6th, 2013
Infants who do not make eye contact during their first months of life may be displaying a marker for autism, researchers from the National Institutes of Mental Health reported in a potentially game-changing study that was published in the journal Nature. the study found that eye contact and attention to others’ eyes routinely declines in 2- to 6-month-olds who are later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). More from the National Institutes of Health:
“Autism isn’t usually diagnosed until after age 2, when delays in a child’s social behavior and language skills become apparent. This study shows that children exhibit clear signs of autism at a much younger age,” said Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of NIMH. “The sooner we are able to identify early markers for autism, the more effective our treatment interventions can be.”
Typically developing children begin to focus on human faces within the first few hours of life, and they learn to pick up social cues by paying special attention to other people’s eyes. Children with autism, however, do not exhibit this sort of interest in eye-looking. In fact, a lack of eye contact is one of the diagnostic features of the disorder.
To find out how this deficit in eye-looking emerges in children with autism, Warren Jones, Ph.D., and Ami Klin, Ph.D., of the Marcus Autism Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Emory University School of Medicine followed infants from birth to age 3. The infants were divided into two groups, based on their risk for developing an autism spectrum disorder. Those in the high risk group had an older sibling already diagnosed with autism; those in the low risk group did not.
Jones and Klin used eye-tracking equipment to measure each child’s eye movements as they watched video scenes of a caregiver. The researchers calculated the percentage of time each child fixated on the caregiver’s eyes, mouth, and body, as well as the non-human spaces in the images. Children were tested at 10 different times between 2 and 24 months of age.
By age 3, some of the children — nearly all from the high risk group — had received a clinical diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. The researchers then reviewed the eye-tracking data to determine what factors differed between those children who received an autism diagnosis and those who did not.
“In infants later diagnosed with autism, we see a steady decline in how much they look at mom’s eyes,” said Jones. This drop in eye-looking began between two and six months and continued throughout the course of the study. By 24 months, the children later diagnosed with autism focused on the caregiver’s eyes only about half as long as did their typically developing counterparts.
This decline in attention to others’ eyes was somewhat surprising to the researchers. In opposition to a long-standing theory in the field — that social behaviors are entirely absent in children with autism — these results suggest that social engagement skills are intact shortly after birth in children with autism. If clinicians can identify this sort of marker for autism in a young infant, interventions may be better able to keep the child’s social development on track.
“This insight, the preservation of some early eye-looking, is important,” explained Jones. “In the future, if we were able to use similar technologies to identify early signs of social disability, we could then consider interventions to build on that early eye-looking and help reduce some of the associated disabilities that often accompany autism.”
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Image: Infant looking at mother, via Shutterstock
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Thursday, October 17th, 2013
Parents, health care professionals, and friends who are connected to life with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are getting involved in a frantic search to find 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo, an autistic New York City boy who has been missing for 13 days. More from NBC New York:
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“When you have an individual who can’t speak and communicate for himself, that touches the heart,” said Julius Cannon, one of the volunteers searching for Avonte.
Cannon is among the numerous New Yorkers donating their time each day to help look for the mute autistic boy, who was last seen running away from his Long Island City school. Cannon has worked closely with autistic children and says people in the special needs community, especially those touched by autism, are committed to helping one another.
“I’ve been a part of this special community for years — 15 years, to be exact,” he said. “These kids, whether I work with them, they’re just a part of the family.”
Trudging through the brush to search tunnels, Wesley Miller of Astoria has been searching for Avonte since he went missing.
“When I heard about this kid and found out he was autistic, that really burned me up. I had to do something,” he said.
While Avonte’s family told NBC 4 New York Monday they feared foul play, they sounded optimistic on Tuesday.
“Our hopes are extremely high,” said a relative.
Police Chief Phillip Banks said Avonte’s disappearance has hit a personal note with investigators.
“We started out the meeting, ‘OK, if this was our son, what would we be doing differently?’” he said. “We went around the table and spent the first few minutes speaking about that.”
Friday, September 20th, 2013
A genetic disorder that can lead to developmental delays, anxiety, and social awkwardness is misdiagnosed as an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as much as 50 percent of the time, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California Davis. The mistake can lead to inappropriate treatment for the children, and may even worsen the symptoms of their genetic condition. More from Time.com:
About one in 2000 people are diagnosed with 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, which can lead to developmental delays, social awkwardness and anxiety, among other symptoms. Because those symptoms overlap with some of the hallmark signs of autism, researchers say that anywhere from 20% to 50% of children with 22q, as the condition is called, are misdiagnosed with autism.
That can have serious implications for these patients, since behavior-based treatments designed to alleviate the social deficits of autism may actually exacerbate anxiety among those with the 22q genetic disorder. If left untreated, children with 22q can be at higher risk of developing other mental health disorders like schizophrenia later in life.
To tease apart the differences between children with 22q and those with autism, the researchers, based at the University of California Davis MIND Institute, recruited a small group of 29 kids from a website the study called Cognitive Analysis and Brain Imaging Laboratory (CABIL). The scientists noticed that parents of children with the genetic disorder often commented that while their kids were diagnosed with autism, they seemed different from other children with the developmental disorder. “It’s quite clear that children with the [22q] disorder do have social impairments,” said study author Tony J. Simon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the MIND Institute in a statement. “But it did seem to us that they did not have a classic case of autism spectrum disorder. They often have very high levels of social motivation. They get a lot of pleasure from social interaction, and they’re quite socially skilled.”
So the team gave the children two of the gold standard tests for diagnosing autism — the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ) — to see if they indeed showed signs of autism.
Only five of the children had elevated scores on the ADOS test, and four out of the five had anxiety. None of the 22q children had scores high enough in both tests to classify them as having autism.
Image: Child with pediatrician, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013
The first large-scale study to link autism with autoimmunity has been published in the journal Molecular Biology. The study found that as many as 1 in 10 mothers of autistic children have antibodies in their bloodstream that react with proteins in the brains of their developing fetuses. More from ScienceDaily.com:
…While the blood-brain barrier in the adult women prevents them from being harmed by the antibodies, that same filter in the fetuses is not well-developed enough and so may allow the “anti-brain” antibodies to pass through to the babies’ brains, possibly causing autism.
The study was led by Dr. Betty Diamond, head of the Center for Autoimmune and Musculoskeletal Disorders at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Long Island, New York, who said the very large sample size “gives a clearer impression of the prevalence of these antibodies.”
“We at AARDA applaud Dr. Diamond’s research into an area that concerns all parents,” said Virginia T. Ladd, President of American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, Inc. (AARDA).
According to AARDA, in healthy people, when a foreign invader, such as a virus or bacteria, enters the body, the immune system produces antibodies to attack those foreign substances. In people with autoimmunity, the immune system mistakenly recognizes the body’s own healthy tissues and organs as foreign invaders and produces antibodies to attack them. These auto-antibodies — or antibodies produced against the self — then cause disease. The disease that results depends upon which tissues and/or organs the antibodies are attacking.
Some 50 million Americans live and cope with autoimmune disease (AD), 75 percent of whom are women.
Image: Pregnant woman, via Shutterstock
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