IMFAR Update: GFCF Diet Not Beneficial, New Biomarker, New Potential Treatment, 80% Divorce Rate Myth Debunked


ASF President Alison Singer speaking at IMFAR press conference

The International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) officially gets underway tomorrow in Philadelphia, but already there is significant discussion about several studies that were presented at today’s IMFAR press conference.

Dr. Susan Hyman of the University of Rochester reported on her study that shows the gluten free casein free (gfcf) diet does not appear beneficial for children with autism.

“It would have been wonderful for children with autism and their families if we found that the gluten-free, casein-free diet could really help, but this study didn’t show significant benefits,” said Dr. Hyman

“The removal of gluten and casein from the diet of a controlled group of young children with autism did not demonstrate a change in sleep habits, bowel habits, activity or core symptoms of autism,” Hyman said.

Dr. Eric Courchesne of UCSD spoke at the press conference about his study showing a simple brain scan performed in infants and toddlers may be a biomarker for autism leading to early detection and early intervention.

The test involved using functional MRI to measure brain responses to spoken words in sleeping children.

“We discovered that autistic infants and toddlers displayed a pronounced abnormality of language activation and cortical development” said Courchesene.  “At each age studied from infancy to young childhood, most autistic subjects had greater activation on the incorrect side, namely, the right temporal cortex, compared to the left side and this incorrect activation pattern did not change or “normalize” even by 3 or 4 years of age.  The abnormal pattern was strong in a substantial percentage of autistic infants and toddlers suggesting that with further testing refinements, clinical tests revealing this abnormal activation pattern in individual cases could serve as a biomarker for risk for autism.”

Dr. Joseph Buxbaum of the Seaver Center at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine described a potential new treatment for individuals with autism who carry a Shank3 gene mutation (approximately 1% of the autistic population). “We have developed mice with a mutant Shank3 gene and observed deficits in the communication between nerve cells in the brain, which can lead to learning problems” said Buxbaum.  “Some changes we observed implicate a neurotransmitter for which several classes of drugs have been developed and we are now testing those classes of drugs in the mice. These changes, as well as other changes in the mice, indicated that the nerve cells were not maturing at the normal rate, so we gave the mice an experimental compound to help the nerve cells. This compound, which is formed as a natural derivative of insulin-like growth factor-1, is known to cross into the brain. After two weeks of injections, the communication between nerve cells was normal. Moreover, adaptation of nerve cells to stimulation, considered a key part of learning and memory, which is reduced in the mice, is restored following treatment. This indicates that similar approaches might be helpful in children with Shank3 deletions or mutations”.

Another study described today shows that divorce rates are similar for parents with and without children with autism, debunking the myth that families raising children with autism have a higher than average divorce rate.

Parents of autistic children often hear that the divorce rate in families with is 80%, but Brian Freedman of the Kennedy Krieger Institute reported that “there really weren’t any significant differences in terms of family structure when you consider children with autism and those without.”  ‘What we found is that children with autism remained with both biological or adoptive parents 64% of the time, compared with children in families without autism, who remained [with both biological or adoptive parents] 65% of the time.”

In memoriam

All of us at the Autism Science Foundation mourn the loss of Caryn Schwartzman. Caryn was an amazing mother, wife and friend.  She was a trailblazing autism advocate and served as co-chair of the inaugural autism walk on Long Island.  

Our thoughts are with Caryn’s husband Marty and their children Alison and Robert.  May Caryn’s memory be a blessing.

Secretary Sebelius Appoints Five New IACC Public Members

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has announced the appointment of five new public members to the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), a federal advisory committee created in an effort to accelerate progress in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) research and services.

The committee is composed of a diverse group of federal officials from HHS agencies and the Department of Education, as well as public members that include people with ASD, parents of people with ASD, and leaders of national ASD advocacy and research organizations.  Autism Science Foundation co-founder and president Alison Singer serves as a public member on the IACC.

In January 2009, the IACC released its first strategic plan for autism research. The IACC released a second edition of its strategic plan in January 2010.

“Today I am pleased to announce new members of the IACC, who will bring additional points of view and expertise to the committee,” Secretary Sebelius said. “I look forward to hearing from the committee members on important matters that affect people with autism and their families as we continue our efforts to address this urgent public health challenge.”

ASDs are a group of developmental disabilities that cause major social, communication and behavioral challenges with symptoms that present before age 3. ASDs affect each person in different ways and can range from very mild to severe. People with ASDs share some similar symptoms, such as problems with social interaction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an average of 1 in every 110 children in the United States has some form of ASD. 

For more information on the IACC, visit  The full committee roster is available here.

New Public Members of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee

Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D.
As chief science officer for Autism Speaks, Dr. Dawson works with the scientific community and stakeholders to shape and expand the foundation’s scientific vision. She also is a licensed clinical psychologist with a research focus on early detection and intervention, early patterns of brain dysfunction and the identification of biological markers for autism genetic studies. Dr. Dawson also serves as research professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,  adjunct professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and professor emeritus of psychology at University of Washington.

Gerald D. Fischbach, M.D.
Dr. Fischbach is the scientific director for the Simons Foundation where he oversees the Autism Research Initiative. He has spent his career as a neuroscientist studying the formation and maintenance of synapses, the junctions between nerve cells which allow signals to be transmitted. Before joining the Simons Foundation, Dr. Fischbach served as the Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke from 1998 to 2001 and as the Executive Vice President of Columbia University Medical Center and Dean of the faculties of medicine from 2001 to 2006.

Ari Ne’eman
Mr. Ari Ne’eman is the founding president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, where he works to increase the representation of autistic people in public policy discussions. He is an adult on the autism spectrum and a leading advocate in the neurodiversity movement. Mr. Ne’eman has served on the New Jersey Adults with Autism Task Force and the New Jersey Special Education Review Commission, where he authored a minority report advocating legislative action against the use of aversives, restraint and seclusion. He is a board member of TASH, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, and is involved with the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education.

Denise D. Resnik
Denise Resnik is the co-founder and board development chair of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC). She is the mother of an 18-year-old son with autism. Ms. Resnik serves on the Autism Speaks Family Services Committee and Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism (AFAA) Steering Committee. She participated in the 2006 NIMH Autism Matrix Review and the IACC Scientific Workshops to develop the IACC Strategic Plan and subsequent updates.

Marjorie Solomon, Ph.D.
Assistant professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of California, Davis

Dr. Marjorie Solomon is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Davis. She serves on the Faculty of the Medical Investigation of Neurological Disorders (MIND) Institute and the Autism Research Training Program where she conducts research on a social skills training intervention for high-functioning children with ASD, incorporating parents and siblings in the research. In addition to her clinical research work, Dr. Solomon studies cognition and learning in high-functioning individuals with ASD.

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