The Latest Autism Research

Last week, I attended the 5th Anniversary Celebration of the Autism Science Foundation (ASF), which provides funding for scientists who are doing cutting-edge research. To mark the occasion, ASF held a Ted-Style symposium, at which leading experts shared insights on the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of autism. Here's what I found to be most interesting.

Autism organizations that fund research need our support because the government can't foot the bill. "We love you, but we have no money," Congress recently told Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (in so many words). His response: "Research is an investment, not a cost."

Although children who are diagnosed with autism at a young age are most likely to benefit from early intervention, only 20% of children are diagnosed before age 3. A study by Dr. Ami Klin, director of the Marcus Autism Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, found that babies and toddlers who don't make eye contact with adults (and instead look at an adult's mouth) are more likely to develop autism. This finding could pave the way for a simple and cost-effective way to screen all young children for the risk of autism—so that treatment can begin before 24 months of age.

Girls need a greater "genetic hit" than boys in order to develop autism. Dr. Joseph Buxbaum, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Neuropsychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City, explained that autism may be an X-linked disorder, which would help explain why it is more common in boys. Girls have two X chromosomes, so if the mutated genes that cause autism are on the X chromosome, a girl could also have a "healthy X chromosome" that counters the influence of the X chromosome with mutations, said Dr. Buxbaum. Boys, on the other hand, have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. Based on the latest genetic discoveries, researchers think it's possible to use animal studies to develop new drugs that can affect the underlying physiology of autism.

Parents should come together to fight for evidence-based interventions in schools, not just more hours of therapy and 1:1 support for students. Dr. David Mandell, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, has studied how well public-school teachers implement the most effective treatments for children with autism. He said that it's crucial for school administrators to provide ongoing support for classroom teachers who are using these well-studied interventions and that teachers need to be rewarded for adhering to them.

It takes brains to solve autism. This is a difficult topic to discuss, but researchers need to study the abnormalities in the brains of people with autism in order to speed us along to a cure, said Dr. David Amaral, a research director of the MIND Institute at University of California, Davis. Scientists made major advances in the understanding of Alzheimer's disease by studying the brains of patients who had died of the condition, and those findings led to the development of all the current drugs that are helping patients. Autism BrainNet is a new initiative that will collect brain tissue to collaborate on groundbreaking brain research, and "It Takes Brains" is an outreach program that will encourage parents to register to donate their child's brain to help scientific research.

Studies have not shown that any alternative medicine is beneficial for autism. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, and a recent study found that close to 9 percent of parents are giving their child treatments that are considered potentially unsafe, invasive or unproven. Dr. Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, summed up the bottom line: "If an alternative medicine works, then it's a medicine, and if it doesn't, it is not an alternative."

A simple test developed by the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore may be able to help determine whether a child will develop autism and other forms of developmental delays. The pull-to-sit test, done in infants as young as six months old, monitors whether or not a child has head lag, or trouble controlling his neck and head. While the test is not a diagnosis, children with head lag have a higher risk of autism or other social or communication delays.

Photo of DNA via Shutterstock

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