Archive for the ‘ Pregnancy ’ Category

Why Is Autism So Common Now?

Monday, April 1st, 2013

Autism RibbonIn 1980, the rate of autism was typically quoted as 4 in 10,000. The most recent rate reported is 1 in 50. While it is difficult to get a precise estimate, it’s abundantly clear that rates of autism have increased dramatically since 1980 – and in fact over the last decade. So what has changed?

There are a number of factors that have brought the startling levels of autism to our attention. These include:

Better Awareness: In 1980, autism was first introduced as a separate diagnostic category in the third addition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Prior to that time, clinicians using the DSM applied other categories such as childhood schizophrenia. Since 1980, there has been extraordinary growth in awareness – both for professionals and parents alike. This is particularly so over the past decade. Advocacy groups have done an admirable job of helping us understand what autism is (and isn’t). Pediatricians now screen for early warning signs – as do parents. These actions have all led to a much greater awareness of the symptoms of autism which undoubtedly translates in more proper diagnoses being made. In addition, the increased awareness has permitted older kids to be diagnosed more properly when the signs earlier in life were not recognized as autism.

Expansion Of The Symptoms: In parallel with efforts to increase awareness, diagnostic changes that recognized autism as a spectrum – now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – helped capture the wide range of symptoms that go beyond “classic” autism. Including a much broader representation of social, communicative, and repetitive/stereotyped behaviors certainly helped recognize the disorder in many youth who would not have been diagnosed in past years. Of course, there is debate about how the changes in the upcoming DSM-5 may result in a reduction in the rate of diagnosed ASD in the future. But up until now, recognizing the variation in symptoms that can characterize ASD has certainly been a factor in understanding how common autism really is.

Changes In Etiological Factors: Less understood is the role of new causative factors that increase risk for ASD. Much attention is being given to a large number of potential environmental contributors. There is the suggestion that specific genetic mutations that may be linked to autism – and associated with paternal age – are more common in the population because of average increases in paternal age over the last few decades. Much of this work, though, is work in progress, as it is believed that ASD typically results from the combination of a number of environmental and genetic risk factors. But many researchers operate under the assumption that there are both environmental and genetic risk factors that may be increasing in the population, though they remain elusive.

So, since 1980, what we have learned? We know now that autism is very common, is best thought of as a spectrum that includes substantial variation in how symptoms are expressed, and may be influenced by increasing levels of risk factors that are not well understood at this time. For all these reasons, it is critical that we keep researching the causes of autism, and continue to promote awareness of the early signs and symptoms in order to support early diagnosis and intervention.

Image: Autism Awareness Ribbon via Shutterstock

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Red-Hot Parenting Recap February 2013: Child-Haters, Genes, Parenting, and Barriers To Services

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

February 2013 was a busy month in the world of parenting – lots of things going on. Here’s a snapshot: 

CHILD-HATERS

The news that an adult male slapped a stranger’s toddler on a plane led to a conversation about how our culture may be breeding, at a minimum, a lack of respect for our youngsters – and at worst, provide a context in which child-hating is tolerated.

GENES

Speaking of conversations, we had many about if we should use what we are learning about genetics to support genetic engineering, including targeting childhood psychiatric disorders. Then came news that new research suggests some genes might predispose to a number of forms of mental illness – but it’s not at all clear that this will move us closer to genetic solutions.

PARENTING

We always include applications of current research to help guide us decide on good parenting strategies. One study suggest how important it is to let your toddler – and not you – be the “boss” when you are playing. And compelling research showed how the simple act of turning off violent shows and replacing them with educational content – without limiting the amount of TV watched – is beneficial for kids.

BARRIERS TO SERVICES

We took on some key barriers to getting kids mental health services and broke them down in understandable turns. Now we all wait to see if sequestration is going to provide the biggest barrier of all.

Time For Review via Shutterstock.com

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Childhood Psychiatric Disorders: Will Genetic Engineering Ever Be A Solution?

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Following a stimulating Intelligence Squared debate, we’ve been discussing genetic engineering (think of it as directly changing DNA) here at Parents.com – both in terms of using it to create a “Super Baby” and to prevent disease. As a follow-up, let’s consider the likelihood of genetic engineering being a factor in the future for a number of childhood psychiatric disorders – or more to the point, the challenges that lay ahead. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

There would be hope that genetic engineering would be feasible in the future, as ASD is believed to be highly genetic in origin. However, the genetic basis for ASD is not clear. In fact, there may be a range of genetic etiologies. For example, some cases may be due to a rare genetic mutation – but there could be a number of mutations that can lead to ASD (not just one identified disease gene) making the idea of genetic engineering more challenging. The majority of ASD cases may reflect a complex mix of genetic and environmental influences – and the latest statistical modeling suggests that the genetic contribution to ASD may not be as strong as previously thought (and that the role of the environment may be more pronounced). For those situations, the idea of using genetic engineering is even more murky, because there may be many genes involved and they probably interact with a variety of environmental factors. All of this is not to say that genetics won’t lead to possible biological therapeutics – rather it’s to point out that the lure of genetic engineering as a solution may not be the avenue that will be pursued.

ADHD

The best evidence to date suggests that ADHD is due to a mix of genetic factors along with the influence of a number of environmental factors. As discussed above, this makes the pure application of genetic engineering difficult to imagine. There may a large number of genes involved, each of which may only have a small effect on the likelihood of developing ADHD – which, simply put, would make it very difficult to know what genes to target. Again, it’s tough to predict where genetic research will go, but while it may certainly lead to improved treatments over time for ADHD, it’s tough to see the role of genetic engineering.

Depression

You’re starting to see a pattern here. Like ADHD, depression is also thought to be influenced by many genes as well as the environment. As discussed above, this constellation of risk factors does not suggest that genetic engineering will be a factor any time soon.

Conduct Disorder (CD)

This is the same deal as the case for ADHD and depression – and it may be that the environment plays an even stronger role in the etiology of CD.

Conclusion

The idea of genetic engineering is provocative. But the reality may be far in the future for most childhood psychiatric disorders – and in many cases it may not be the way in which genetic research gets translated into prevention and intervention.

Molecular Biology Test via Shutterstock.com

 

 

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Genetically Engineered Babies: Good Or Bad Idea?

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Would you want the option of harnessing the power of genetics to alter the DNA of your unborn child? Would you want this to prevent disease? Select physical characteristics? Or “design” your baby by changing the genetic code? 

Such was the topic of an Intelligence Squared debate held in New York City on February 13. Two experts argued that genetic engineering should be banned; two experts argued that it should be supported. The audience – of which I was a part – had a chance to vote both before, and after, the arguments were made. Prior to the debate, I was in favor of supporting genetic engineering – with many caveats. After listening to both sides present their point of view, I pondered three points to help me come to a final decision:

Is genetic engineering feasible?

The science of genetics is fast paced. Although we don’t have much in the way of actual examples, it is worth assuming that it would be feasible at some point in the future. That said, my position is that it will only be worth considering for diseases or traits that are shaped by a single gene. There are certainly many diseases for which this is the case, such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington Disease. I certainly think there may come a time when it would be possible to try to intervene biologically to correct the mutations that underlie these conditions. However, bear in mind that most diseases and traits are believed to be due to the effects of many genes (polygenic) as well as environmental influences (multifactorial). Even height, which we think of as being “genetic”, is due to the combined effects of many genes as well as environment, and hence is multifactorial. Eye color is not as straightforward in terms of genetics as you might think. So … I think we can have the conversation about those more rare diseases and traits that are due to the “necessary and sufficient” effects of a single gene which can be identified along with the gene product. Having the debate about polygenic and multifactorial traits (more on this below) seems to be morphing into science fiction rather than science (unless science proves that wrong).

Why should we pursue it?

The primary reason would be to eradicate disease, especially disorders that are known to cause premature death. Certainly think about the life of a kid with cystic fibrosis – who wouldn’t want to spare a child that? Huntington Disease is an interesting example because it reveals that genes don’t just express themselves at birth – they can have a deleterious effect in adulthood. If we could alter that gene and prevent Huntington Disease, shouldn’t we do that? Some cases of breast cancer involve the primary (though not fully deterministic) effects of a single gene – again, if we could alter that mutation, wouldn’t we do that?

Why shouldn’t we pursue it?

Many feel that there are ethical considerations. For example, some do not like the idea of changing DNA – in essence, the thought is that it should be left alone. However, in terms of disease treatment, it’s worth noting that we do have examples of changing what a mutation does, and in the process keeping people healthy. A great example is a type of lymphoma caused by the “Philadelphia Chromosome” (so named because the mutation was discovered by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania). While the discovery was made in 1960, it took about 40 years to discover a genetically tailored drug that keeps the disease in check and allows people with this mutation to lead healthy lives. Although this isn’t genetic engineering in the strict sense, the principle is the same – alter the effects of DNA to change the likelihood of disease.

Less clarity surrounds the use of  genetic engineering to try to give parents the opportunity to control a variety of traits in their child to be – their appearance, personality, intelligence. As discussed by Melanie Abrahams, the pregnancy editor at Parents.com, the issue is would you want to create a Super Baby if you were given the choice? Again, my two cents to throw into this part of the debate is that it’s hard for me to imagine genetic engineering for polygenic, multifactorial traits – which includes appearance, personality, and intelligence. But then again, we don’t really know, do we?

Where do I land on this issue?

Bottom line, I support the idea of genetic engineering for well-defined diseases that are known to cause suffering and death. I don’t see any difference between designing a drug that is tailored to counter the biological effects of a mutation, and in principle directly altering the mutation. I don’t like the idea of applying genetic engineering principles to anything other than disease. Even “black or white” questions have their gray area.

DNA Structure via Shutterstock.com

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Should The “Sandusky” Sanctions Against Penn State Be Dropped?

Friday, January 4th, 2013

The governor of Pennsylvania is now challenging – legally – the steep sanctions imposed against Penn State by the NCAA in response to the sordid Sandusky scandal. The basic argument the governor is offering is not a new one: it’s that the university and football program should not be punished for the actions of a few. And this argument remains as flawed – and offensive – as ever. 

Look, the “few” who were punished for their acts included: a former assistant coach (who sexually abused boys on the Penn State premises), the revered head coach, the athletic director, a vice president, and the president of the university. This isn’t just a “few” whose actions were reprehensible (Sandusky), misguided or worse (Paterno), and downright offensive and in fact criminal (the university officials). A university is not just an abstract entity: it’s a complex infrastructure with its own set of working rules. Clearly, at Penn State, the chain that connected the football program to the athletic program to the president of the university was exposed as being morally bankrupt and insulated from the real world for many years. Let’s also remember who the victims were – youth – and the crimes committed against them – sexual abuse.

Since the sanctions were imposed, Penn State has responded in an honorable manner. They have taken every step to rebuild the image of the university as an institution that will not put athletics ahead of the fundamental educational and moral values that it must uphold. They had vigils. They have hosted a conference on preventing child abuse. They have housed – for many years – professors and researchers who contribute much to improving the lives of children. The football program conducted itself with pride this year and showed respect for the victims.

I get, in a practical sense, that many people at Penn State are bearing the burden of the few. I congratulate them for taking this on. It’s the right thing to do. If they weren’t doing that, we’d have no confidence that things have really changed much there. I would hope that the governor of Pennsylvania would see that and support that – because his message is that we should all forget about the criminal acts that were committed there and the extensive efforts made to protect the university rather than help the victims. We should never forget what happened there. Let Penn State continue to absorb the sanctions with honor and with a forward looking perspective to be sure that the phrase “Penn State Proud” resonates in a good way.

Penn State Building via Shutterstock.com

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