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Archive for the ‘autism research’ Category

The Department of Health and Human Services today announced the names of the fifteen individuals invited to participate as public members of the newly reauthorized Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC). Among the 15 are Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, who was reappointed for a second term. Dr. David Mandell, a member of the ASF Scientific Advisory Board and Matt Carey, parent of a child with autism and frequent contributor to the ASF blog were also appointed.

The committee was initially established in 2006 under the Combating Autism Act and was renewed in late 2011 by the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act.  The committee’s job is to advise the Secretary on research opportunities and emerging needs in the community and to write an annual strategic plan to guide federal spending on autism research.

“I am honored to be reappointed to this committee”, said Singer.  “The needs in our community are so great. We have so much work to do. We need to understand what is causing autism and we need to develop better treatments for children, teens and adults.  And that means we need to increase our investment in autism research. We have learned so much about autism’s genetic and biological underpinnings in the last few years. We have to understand more about what’s going wrong in the brain that causes autism so that we can develop appropriate medical treatments. This is no time for the NIH to back down on autism funding; it’s time to double down.”

Dr. Insel, Chair of the IACC and Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, is eager to begin work with the new members. “The individuals that have been selected by Secretary Sebelius each bring with them a great amount of expertise and valuable insight,” he said. “I have seen the committee’s evolution since its early days and I am hopeful we will continue to build upon previous progress.”

The individuals invited to serve on the renewed Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee include:

Idil Abdull
Ms. Idil Abdull is the parent of a son with autism and Co-Founder of the Somali American Autism Foundation. As a Somali-American mother, she has worked to raise awareness about the high prevalence of autism among Somali immigrants living in Minnesota and has helped to change autism policies in the state. She also has a special interest in serving as a voice for underrepresented groups more broadly, including those that are struggling with language, cultural, and economic barriers as they seek ways to help their family members with disabilities. Ms. Abdull holds a bachelor’s degree in Health Care Administration.

James Ball
Dr. Jim Ball is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) who is the President and CEO of JB Autism Consulting. He has worked in the private sector field of autism for more than 25 years, providing educational, employment, and residential services to children and adults affected with autism. He is a Board member of the Autism Society’s (AS) Board of Directors and is currently the Chair of the National Board. He received his Doctor of Education degree from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Anshu Batra
Dr. Anshu Batra is a developmental pediatrician specializing in autism and early childhood developmental disorders and the mother of two sons with autism spectrum disorder. She currently works in a private practice that provides medical services to more than 600 patients with developmental disabilities, the majority of whom have an autism diagnosis. The practice is unique not only in terms of the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity of its patients, but also in its scope. Dr. Batra has become an outspoken advocate to educate both the professional and lay communities about autism and considers how to best integrate a growing subpopulation of individuals on the spectrum into society. She received her M.D. from the University of Michigan and trained in Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Noah Britton
Mr. Britton was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome a decade ago as a freshman in college and has spent every year since working directly with people on the spectrum. He is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Bunker Hill Community College and has presented on autism as a guest lecturer at the University of Virginia and Tufts University. Prior to that Mr. Britton worked directly with teenagers on the spectrum as head counselor for the Northeast ARC’s Spotlight program and as a drama teacher at the New England Academy in Massachusetts. Mr. Britton currently serves on the scientific/educational advisory board of the Autism Higher Education Foundation. He received his master’s degree in psychology from Hunter College in 2010.

Sally Burton-Hoyle
Dr. Sally Burton-Hoyle, sister to a person on the autism spectrum, has focused her life and career on improving the education of people with autism and other challenging behaviors. She serves as area coordinator of the Masters of Autism Spectrum Disorders program at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). This program is based on Positive Behavioral Supports and family/community involvement. Dr. Burton-Hoyle has been at EMU since 2006 and was Executive Director of the Autism Society of Michigan prior to EMU. In addition, she has classroom experience as a special education teacher. Dr. Burton-Hoyle holds a doctorate in education from the University of Idaho and a master’s degree in special education from the University of Kansas.

Matthew Carey
Dr. Matthew Carey is the father of a young child with multiple disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, and is a frequent contributor to the Left Brain/Right Brain blog and the Autism Science Foundation blog. His writing focuses on reviewing current autism research in an understandable way for the public and he is deeply committed to communicating the importance of getting the science right for autism. He is also interested in analyzing trends in health and education public datasets.  Dr. Carey is an active industrial researcher in computer hardware whose current research interests include magnetic thin films, spintronics, and magnetic nanostructures. He received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California, San Diego, and his M.S. in Physics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Dennis Choi
Dr. Dennis Choi is the Executive Vice President of the Simons Foundation, the second largest funder of autism research, and he was previously a member of the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board. Past positions have included Vice President of Academic Health Affairs at Emory University, Executive Vice President of Neuroscience at Merck Research Labs, and professor and head of Neurology at Washington University Medical School. His research experience has included work on the physiological mechanism of action of benzodiazepine drugs and the processes responsible for nerve cell death after ischemic or traumatic insults. His research on mechanisms of brain and spinal cord injury has been recognized with several awards. Dr. Choi received his M.D. from the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program, as well as a Ph.D. in pharmacology and neurology residency/fellowship training from Harvard University, before joining the faculty at Stanford University School of Medicine from 1983-1991.

Jose Cordero
Dr. Cordero is the Dean of the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Puerto Rico. Prior to this appointment, Dr. Cordero was an Assistant Surgeon General of the Public Health Service and the Founding Director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. He served in this capacity from the time of the establishment of the center on April 16, 2001 until his departure in 2006. Dr. Cordero worked for 27 years at the CDC and has extensive public health experience in the fields of birth defects, developmental disabilities, and child health.  He obtained his medical degree from the University of Puerto Rico in 1973, completed residency training in pediatrics at Boston City Hospital and a fellowship in medical genetics at the Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1979, Dr. Cordero obtained a Masters of Public Health degree from Harvard University.

Jan Crandy
Ms. Jan Crandy is a case manager for the Nevada State Autism Treatment Assistance Program (ATAP) and has been a leader in raising awareness and treating autism spectrum disorders in Nevada for more than 15 years. She is a dedicated advocate and parent of a child with autism. In her current position at ATAP, Ms. Crandy manages and develops programs for more than 65 children with ASD. In 2007, Ms. Crandy was appointed to the Nevada Autism Task Force by Governor Jim Gibbons. In that role, Ms. Crandy helped develop policy recommendations for state policymakers on ways to improve the delivery and coordination of autism services in Nevada. She also serves as Chair of the Nevada Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders. Ms. Crandy began her career in advocacy in 1996 when her daughter was diagnosed with autism. With the support of family and friends, Ms. Crandy started a nonprofit organization called Families for Early Autism Treatment (FEAT) to help parents of children with ASD in Southern Nevada.

Geraldine Dawson
Dr. Dawson is the Chief Science Officer for Autism Speaks, where she works with the scientific community and other stakeholders to shape and expand the organization’s scientific vision. In addition to her work with Autism Speaks, Dr. Dawson holds the positions of 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. Dawson is a licensed clinical psychologist who has published extensively on autism spectrum disorders, focusing on early detection and intervention and early patterns of brain dysfunction. In collaboration with Dr. Sally Rogers, Dawson helped to develop and empirically-validated the Early Start Denver Model, the first comprehensive early intervention program for toddlers with autism. She has collaborated on numerous studies of brain development and function and genetic risk factors in autism. From 1996-2008, Dawson was Founding Director of the University of Washington Autism Center where she directed three NIH Autism Center of Excellence Award programs of research focusing on genetics, neuroimaging, early diagnosis, and clinical trials. Dr. Dawson has served as a public member on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee since 2010 and has been invited to continue her service.  Dr. Dawson received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology with a minor in Child Clinical Psychology from the University of Washington.

David Mandell
Dr. David Mandell is a health services researcher and psychiatric epidemiologist who seeks to identify the best ways to organize, finance and deliver services to children with psychiatric and developmental disabilities. He is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine. The goal of his current research is to improve care for children with autism and their families by developing successful interventions at the individual, provider and system levels to decrease the age at which children with autism are recognized and enter treatment, and to improve the services and supports available to them and their families.  Dr. Mandell holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Columbia University and a Doctor of Science from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

Lyn Redwood
Ms. Lyn Redwood is Co-Founder, Vice President and Board Member of Coalition for SafeMinds and Co-Founder of the National Autism Association (NAA). She became interested in autism research and advocacy when he son was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Ms. Redwood served on the Department of Defense Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Program from 2007-2009 and was acknowledged for a decade of service by Spectrum Magazine as their Person of the Year in 2009. Ms. Redwood has served as a public member on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee since 2007 and has been invited to continue her service.  Ms. Redwood holds a Master of Science in Nursing from the University of Alabama and is a registered nurse in the state of Georgia.

Scott Michael Robertson
Mr. Scott Michael Robertson co-founded the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) in 2006 and currently serves as ASAN’s Vice Chair of Development. Mr. Robertson, an adult on the autism spectrum, is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in information sciences and technology at Penn State University’s University Park campus. His research pursuits in the fields of disability studies, human-computer interaction, and computer supported work/learning focus on understanding and improving the lives of people with neurological and developmental disabilities. Beyond his research, Mr. Robertson has actively served the cross-disability and autism communities as a mentor, teacher, advocate, public speaker, and writer. Mr. Robertson holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a master’s degree in human-computer interaction from Carnegie Mellon University.

John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is an adult on the autism spectrum who grew up in the 1960s before the Asperger diagnosis came into common use. At age sixteen, Mr. Robison left high school to join his first band as a sound engineer. Within a few years he was building equipment for Pink Floyd’s sound company, touring the hockey rinks of Canada with April Wine, and creating the signature special effects guitars for the rock band, KISS. John went on to design sound effects and other circuits for some of the most popular electronic games and toys of the era before moving into more conventional engineering management. In the late 1980s, John left electronics for a new career – cars. His company, J E Robison Service, grew to be one of the largest independent restoration and service specialists for BMW, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes, and Rolls Royce cars. Mr. Robison is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts, speaks publicly about his experience as a person on the autism spectrum, and is the author of popular books about living life with autism, Look Me in the EyeMy Life with Asperger’s, and Be DifferentAdventures of a Free-Range Aspergian.

Alison Singer
Ms. Alison Singer is Co-Founder and President of the Autism Science Foundation, a not-for-profit organization launched in April 2009 to support autism research. The Autism Science Foundation supports autism research by providing funding and other assistance to scientists and organizations conducting, facilitating, publicizing and disseminating autism research. Ms. Singer is the mother of a daughter with autism and legal guardian of her adult brother with autism. From 2005-2009 she served as Executive Vice President and a Member of the Board of Directors at Autism Speaks. Ms. Singer has served as a public member on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee since 2007 and has been invited to continue her service.  Ms. Singer graduated magna cum laude from Yale University with a B.A. in Economics and has an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

The committee is comprised of public members and federal memberes. The federal members of the committee (representatives of the federal government agencies involved in autism research and services) are expected to be announced shortly.

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From Autism Science Foundation

(March 29, 2012—New York)  The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta today reported that 1 in 88 children were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 2008.  That’s a 23% increase from 2006 when the prevalence rate was 1 in 110.  Autism spectrum disorders are almost five times more common among boys than girls – with 1 in 54 boys identified.

“One thing the data tells us with certainty – there are many children and families who need help,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H said in a press release. “We must continue to track autism spectrum disorders because this is the information communities need to guide improvements in services to help children.”  On a noontime call with media and advocates, Dr. Frieden added “Doctors are getting better at diagnosing autism. It’s possible that the increase is entirely the result of better detection.”

The identified prevalence of ASDs in U.S. children aged 8 years was estimated through a retrospective review of records in multiple sites participating in the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. Data were collected from existing records in 14 ADDM Network sites (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin) for 2008.  Children aged 8 years met the case definition for an ASD if their records documented behaviors consistent with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, text revision (DSM-IV-TR) criteria for autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder–not otherwise specified (PDD NOS), or Asperger disorder. Presence of an identified ASD was determined through a review of data abstracted from developmental evaluation records by trained clinician reviewers.

“These are not just numbers, these are real people with real needs” said Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation.  “These are families that are exploding.  We have to focus on building the infrastructure to provide education and services to all of these people and their families. And we have to focus on what is fueling the increase in prevalence, and that means investing in research.  We have learned so much about autism’s genetic underpinnings in the last few years. We have to understand more about what’s going wrong in the brain that causes autism so that we can develop appropriate medical treatments.”

“We need to accelerate research into causes” said Dr. Coleen Boyle, Director of the CDC’s Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.  “Tracking helps identify potential risk factors. Because of tracking we now know more about how advanced parental age and premature birth confer increased risk for autism.”

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities characterized by atypical development in socialization, communication, and behavior. ASDs typically are apparent before age 3 years and sometimes can be diagnosed as early as 14 months, with associated impairments affecting multiple areas of a person’s life. Because no biologic marker exists for ASDs, identification is made by professionals who evaluate a child’s developmental progress to identify the presence of developmental disorders.

Learn more at www.autismsciencefoundation.org.  646-723-3976

Read the full report from CDC  http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6103a1.htm?s_cid=ss6103a1_e

CDC has also issued a Community Report  that gives detail by site and has a useful FAQ section.

 

 

 

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By Dr. Eric Courchesne

A new study of autism published today in PLoS Genetics (Age Dependent Brain Gene Expression and Copy Number Anomalies in Autism Suggest Distinct Pathological Processes at Young Versus Mature Age) has discovered abnormal gene activity and gene deletions in the same brain region that also has a 67% overabundance of brain cells.  This region – the prefrontal cortex—is involved in social, emotional, communication and language skills. The finding brings new understanding of what early genetic abnormalities lead to excess brain cells and to the abnormal brain wiring that cause core symptoms in autism. Importantly, the study also shows that gene activity abnormalities in autism change across the lifespan.

The research is one of the first to focus on gene activity inside the young autistic brain, and is the first to examine how gene expression activity changes across the lifespan in autism.  It is also one of the largest postmortem studies of autism to date. This close-up look inside the brain uncovered the presence of abnormal levels of activity in genes (“gene expression”) and gene defects (deletions of portions of DNA sequences) that control the number of brain cells and their growth and pattern of organization in the developing prefrontal cortex. The abnormal gene activity occurred in several networks that are important during prenatal brain development (cell cycle, neurogenesis, DNA damage detection and response, apoptosis and survival networks). This seems to rule out a number of current speculations about postnatal causes of autism and, combined with the new evidence of a 67% excess of prefrontal brain cells, points instead to prenatal causal events in a majority of cases.

The study’s direct examination of both mRNA and DNA from the same frontal cortex region in each individual is also a unique approach to discovering the genetics of abnormal brain development in autism.  The combined mRNA and DNA results indicate that a large and heterogeneous array of gene and gene expression defects disrupt prenatal processes that are critical to early prefrontal cortex formation. “Although DNA defects vary from autistic case to case, the diverse genetic deletions seem to underlie a relatively common biological theme, hitting a shared set of gene pathways that impact cell cycle, DNA damage detection and repair, migration, neural patterning and cell differentiation,” according to the study.  Importantly, the set of functional gene pathways identified by the study’s direct analyses of autistic brain tissue are consistent with those identified by previous studies that analyzed copy number variations in living autistic patients.

A second major discovery in this study is that the pattern of abnormal gene activity changes across the lifespan in autism. Thus, in adults with autism, the study found abnormal activity in genes involved in remodeling, repair, immune response and signaling. This raises opportunities for new research directions that ask whether and how such later alterations in genetic activity impact brain structure and function.  A hope is that perhaps this later, second stage of unusual genetic activity we detected in adults with autism has something to do with enhancing adaptive connections and pruning back earlier maladaptive connections.  Further research needs to better understand the impact of those later changes in genetic activity.

Findings in the new study will help refine the search for specific early genetic markers of risk of autism in babies and toddlers.  Next steps include identifying what causes the altered genetic activity at early stages of development, when nerve cells in prefrontal cortex arise and the first steps in creating brain circuitry are being taken.  Knowledge of these specific patterns of abnormal gene activity may also give rise to future studies that search for medical interventions that target abnormal gene activity in an age-specific fashion.

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Photo credit: pawpaw67

This is a guest post from ASF Science Writer Jerri Sparks Kaiser. Jerri, a parent of four children, one of whom has autism, blogs for ASF from a parent’s perspective about the latest autism research. A former Congressional Press Secretary, Jerri is an experienced science writer and has written specifically about autism for many years. Before her life in PR, she was a trained researcher having earned her B.A. in Psychology at UCLA. She currently lives with her family in New York.

Over the course of my autistic son Jared’s life, he has gone through sleep difficulties, from the earliest weeks when most babies were sleeping 6 hours in a row, up to the present.  Sure, there have been months, or even a few blessed years, when he has been able to sleep 6 ½-8 hours in a row but more often than not Jared’s sleep has been in bursts of 4-hour cycles.  This has led to him having behavioral problems and to his parents and siblings not getting much rest.

When Jared was a baby, my husband and I were fortunate enough to work in an EEG lab while getting our Psychology degrees at UCLA.  Since my husband is an EEG researcher and with guidance from his university advisors, we decided to record Jared’s EEG at 4 months of age to see if we could find out why our baby wasn’t sleeping.  What we discovered is that our son, at 4 months old, had more brainwave activity as compared to others.  We felt this meant that his brain was more activated, even while sleeping.

A recent study utilizing EEG in infants seems to support our early findings with our own son, although this one focused on attentional differences in social situations as opposed to simple brainwave activity differences while sleeping.

Researchers at Birbeck, University of London placed electrodes on the scalps of 6-10 month-old infants to measure their brainwave activity as they watched faces that either looked at them or away.  Since humans have certain characteristic brainwave patterns during social eye contact the researchers were trying to see if infants who later on are diagnosed with autism show a different brainwave pattern in infancy.  If this is so then the measurements can be used as an earlier indicator of autism or the tendency towards autism and it can give parents a head start on intervention.  Results indicated that as early as 6-10 months infants who go on to develop autism already show different brainwave activity as compared to children who do not.  Specifically, the infants who do develop autism process social information differently.  It is important to note that not all infants who showed this pattern developed autism so the research will need to be expanded.

As I write this post, Jared, now 14, is in the hospital for behavioral problems associated with entering puberty last year.  It has been 3 weeks now and the doctors still cannot find a way to help him sleep through the night, or sleep much at all, as it turns out.  I am hopeful that as research continues there will be applicable treatments so that individuals struggling with autism’s challenges can get relief.  I just wish it were sooner rather than later because I really miss my son.

Source: Birkbeck, University of London (2012, January 26). In the brain, signs of autism as early as 6 months old. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 13, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/01/120126123703.htm

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This is a guest post from ASF Science Writer Jerri Sparks Kaiser. Jerri, a parent of four children, one of whom has autism, blogs for ASF from a parent’s perspective about the latest autism research. A former Congressional Press Secretary, Jerri is an experienced science writer and has written specifically about autism for many years. Before her life in PR, she was a trained researcher having earned her B.A. in Psychology at UCLA. She currently lives with her family in New York.

By Jerri Sparks Kaiser

ASD

Photo: jshj

A new study by researchers at Vanderbilt University about giving melatonin to autistic children to help them sleep was published a few weeks ago and it deserves some attention.  Researchers gave 1 mg to 3 mg of melatonin to children with autism ages 3-9 years and noted improved sleep onset.  They are now trying to conduct larger scale studies.

Sleep difficulties have always been a problem for my son Jared.  One of the first things I noticed about his development was that he didn’t sleep very many hours in a row.  In fact, for the first 4 years he only slept 4 ½ hours at a time and after that it was still just 6 hours.  I don’t recall when he finally began sleeping at least 8 hours at a stretch (perhaps it was around age 7) but I know that it didn’t happen without medications prescribed by doctors.  Sleep deprivation was making it difficult for me and my spouse to conduct our daily lives and we resorted to sleeping in shifts. It is estimated that 50-80% of those with ASD are affected by insomnia and that impacts families as well.

I remember sleepily waiting in the elevator at UCLA Medical Center to take Jared to an early pediatrician appointment. He must have been around 10 weeks old.  Beside me in the elevator was another couple with a young infant like my son and we exchanged pleasantries about each baby’s cuteness and then I asked them how they were coping with the lack of sleep.  They smiled at each other and said “She’s already sleeping six hours in a row…”  It was the first of many moments where I sought solace in parents going through the same thing I was going through only to have that hope – that need – dashed.[

Since that time my son has gradually learned to sleep a lot longer, but his sleep is still shallow at times.  The slightest noise can wake him and then he’s up for the day no matter how little sleep he had before he was awakened.  When he is particularly excited about something that’s happening the next day he can’t sleep and will stay awake for 24 hours or more until the anticipated event has occurred.  We are searching for something to help him with this latest symptom, not only for his own health but also for the sake of our family.  Sleep disturbance affects everyone, not just the person experiencing it.  I never thought I’d still be going through sleep deprivation 14 years later.

We did try melatonin for Jared when he was much younger.  I remember it working but as fate would have it, other symptoms, such as running away and behavioral outbursts, took precedence over his sleep supplement and so we had to remove melatonin from his treatment.  The new medications he was placed on took care of his sleep issue until just recently.  This new study makes me wonder if perhaps we could introduce melatonin into his treatment once again and I am going to call his doctor about this.

Recently Jared asked me why he couldn’t sleep.  This is an emerging behavior because Jared is just now beginning to let us into his inner thoughts.  It’s very exciting!  The fact that he’s wondering about his own behaviors is encouraging to me.  I didn’t know what to tell him so I said the only thing a mother can say when she doesn’t have the answer yet: “I don’t know honey, but I’m going to find out and make it all better.”  And I will, someday, somehow.

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By Matt Carey

We live in a plugged-in world. With the internet and smart phones, people never have to be more than a step away from a vast amount of information. I know people who wake up and pretty much immediately check email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.. I’m one of them. Except that I wake up and check for the latest emails from PubMed. I have a number of alerts set up, and it just so turns out that the emails arrive just about as I wake up each day.

The growth in published autism research has been amazing. In 1990 there were 55 abstracts under the topic “autism.” 55 total.
Today, there are days when dozens of abstracts come in on autism, plus more on intellectual disability, developmental disability and other topics I monitor. Most have seen graphs of the growth in the numbers of children diagnosed with autism throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s. I once plotted the number of autism-related research abstracts by year and, after normalizing, found an amazing correlation between the number of abstracts and the number of clients in the California Department of Developmental Disabilities in the autism category. If correlation were causation, we could say that autism research causes autism. More likely is that the same awareness factors are behind much of the increases in diagnoses as well as the number of researchers entering the field.

Below I discuss just a few of the many studies that have recently come out. They are a good cross section of the many areas of autism research being actively pursued today. Mostly, they are the studies which, for one reason or another, caught my eye.

Autism is a broad area of research, and the abstracts reflect that. For example, language delays are common with autism. One question I have personally seen come up is whether a bilingual household would contribute to speech delays. Two recent studies, one from McGill and one from the University of British Columbia indicate that no, bilingual environments do not add to delays. The McGill team wrote “Bilingually-exposed children with ASDs did not experience additional delays in language development”. Perhaps these will help autism parents in multilingual families with the decision about whether to expose their children to more than one language.

Of course, a major focus of autism research involves causation. One in the series of studies using data from Denmark suggests that the risk of autism may be somewhat higher for infants whose amniotic fluid has higher levels of the Monocyte Chemotactic Protein-1 (MCP-1) chemokine.

Low birth weight has been reported to be a risk factor for autism, with a five times higher risk. Some news outlets were confused in their reporting, and cited the risk as higher for preterm births, which was not the focus of the study.

Researchers at Kings College London studied adults diagnosed with autism as children and whether they developed epilepsy. By adulthood, 22% had developed epilepsy, with most the onset was after age 10. Most had generalised tonic–clonic seizures. Thankfully, the majority (28/31) were able to control their seizures with medication, but this goes to show that more work is needed in understanding epilepsy and how to control it.

Personally, I am curious as to whether the 22% prevalence figure will change over time. The characteristics of the autism population are changing with time. California Department of Developmental Services (CDDS) statistics show that the fraction of their clients with epilepsy was going down with time. The adults in the Kings College study were diagnosed in the 1990’s, a time when the CDDS client base had a larger fraction with epilepsy.

A recent study from Stanford looking at adults in Sweden is interesting in that it claims a strong risk for epilepsy with preterm births, in a somewhat tangentially complimentary result to the low birthweight study noted above.

A Harvard study using the Nurse’s Health Study II looked at pregnancy complications and the risk of autism. They found that in general complicated pregnancies increase the risk of autism (about 50% greater risk) and that gestational diabetes in specific was associated with about 75% greater risk.

While studies such as this from the Nurse’s Health Study point to potential prenatal risk factors, developmentally, the first year or two after birth are a time when autistic children often show differences compared to non-autistic peers. For example, in 2003 Eric Courchesne’s group at UCSD discovered that brain overgrowth–rapid growth of the brain during the first years of life–was common in autistic children. A recent study by the Yale Child Center (paper available in full online) found that not only were the brains in autistics on average larger, but the infants were longer and heavier. The increased skeletal growth was evident at 4-5 months, and preceded the head circumference growth which became apparent at 10-11 months.

Autism is diagnosed based on behaviors. This makes diagnosing autism far from a fast process. This is a problem not just for those seeking the diagnosis, but also for researchers looking to expand the number of study subjects available. A study out of Vanderbilt looks at using parent reporting methods as a rapid screening method. In particular they looked at the Social Communication Questionnaire and the Social Responsiveness Scale. While they found that these methods can give rapid results, the slower clinical assessments are still required: “While the rapid phenotyping measures were able to accurately identify a large number of children with ASD, they also frequently failed to differentiate children with ASD from children with other complex neurobehavioral profiles.”

Two more studies from Vanderbilt caught my eye, and these look at family members of developmentally disabled children. One looked at depressive symptoms in mothers following the diagnosis of autism in their children. The study is relatively small, but the authors wrote: “Depressive symptoms immediately following diagnosis were not related to initial global characteristics of child functioning, but were related to reported child problem behaviors and financial barriers at follow-up.” While not specific to autism, another Vanderbilt study considered whether siblings of children with mild intellectual deficits were more likely to work in helping professions or in volunteerism as adults. They found that female siblings were more likely to be in these “helping” professions than male siblings.

Researchers at Harvard and UCLA looked at neurological co-morbidities in autistic individuals. They found that epilepsy, sleep disorders and motor impairments were common.

These are just a few of the studies which have come out in the past couple of weeks. Not every week sees a breakthrough in research in any field. But as long as autism research is supported, every week is a step forward.

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(August 18, 2011—New York, NY)–The Autism Science Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting and funding autism research, today announced that it had issued a new request for scientific proposals. ASF is inviting applications for Pre- and Postdoctoral Training Awards from graduate students, medical students and postdoctoral fellows interested in pursuing careers in basic and clinical research relevant to autism spectrum disorders. In the past two years, ASF has funded over $400,000 in pre- and postdoctoral grants.

“This is one of our most important funding mechanisms” said Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation. “The pre- and postdoctoral fellowships not only build our knowledge about what causes autism and how best to treat it, but also build our future by encouraging outstanding young investigators to dedicate their careers to autism research.”

“Outstanding research is the greatest gift we can offer our families” said Karen London, ASF co-founder. “We are so grateful to all our donors and volunteers who have come together to support autism research and who make these grants possible.”

The proposed training must be scientifically linked to autism. Autism Science Foundation will consider for training purposes all areas of related basic and clinical research including but not limited to: human behavior across the lifespan (language, learning, communication, social function, epilepsy, sleep, repetitive disorders), neurobiology (anatomy, development, neuro-imaging), pharmacology, neuropathology, human genetics/genomics, immunology, molecular and cellular mechanisms, studies employing model organisms and systems, and studies of treatment and service delivery. Applications must be received by November 18, 2011.

Additional information about the RFA can be found at www.autismsciencefoundation.org/ApplyForaGrant.html

The Autism Science Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity. Its mission is to support autism research by providing funding to scientists and organizations conducting, facilitating, publicizing and disseminating autism research. The organization also provides information about autism to the general public and serves to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders and the needs of individuals and families affected by autism.

Grant applications will be reviewed by members of ASF’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) and other highly qualified reviewers. Current SAB members include Dr. Joseph Buxbaum (Mt. Sinai School of Medicine); Dr. Emanuel DiCicco-Bloom (UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School); Dr. Sharon Humiston (University of Rochester); Dr. Bryan King (University of Washington, Seattle); Dr. Ami Klin (Emory University); Dr. Harold Koplewicz (The Child Mind Institute); Dr. Eric London (New York Institute for Basic Research); Dr. Catherine Lord (New York Institute for Brain Development); Dr. David Mandell (University of Pennsylvania/CHOP); and Dr. Matthew State (Yale Medical School).

To learn more about the Autism Science Foundation’s grant programs, and to read about projects funded through this mechanism in prior years, visit www.autismsciencefoundation.org/ApplyForaGrant.html

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Media Contact Info:

Dawn Crawford
Autism Science Foundation
dcrawford@autismsciencefoundation.org

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Dr. Helen Tager-Flusberg is the Director of the Lab of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston University. She is also the newly elected president of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR). In May 2011, ASF intern Max Rolison interviewed Dr. Tager-Flusberg about her research and her INSAR presidency.

Helen Tager-Flusberg, PhD

Max Rolison: How did you get involved with autism research?

Helen Tager-Flusberg: I had been very interested when I was an undergraduate when I was still in England. I was introduced to the earliest research by Uta Frith that she had done for her dissertation under the directorship of Neil O’Connor and Beate Hermelin. And these were the people who were the pioneers doing cognitive research of autism back in the 1970s. I found the work really interesting. I had been interested in pursuing graduate studies in language development. I moved to the United States and when I was looking around for a dissertation topic, I came back to the idea that we could apply the methods that the theory of language acquisition and psycholinguistics to explore the nature of the problems in children with autism. So I began with my dissertation. That’s where I got interested.

MR: I read some of your evaluation of “Theory of Mind”. How has that shaped your interest and direction in the field?

HTF: When I began my research on language development in children with autism, I started out asking the question, “What is really uniquely different about language and language development in this population?” I began looking at grammatical development and then semantic development, and while certainly the majority of verbal children with autism are impaired in those aspects of language, they really didn’t seem different from other language impaired children, so that was clearly not what was unique to autism. Of course, by then others had begun to explore the idea that it was in the aspects of pragmatic development—the ability to use language effectively in different social contexts—that was the heart of what was uniquely impaired in autism. And I began to work on that and then I came across the paper by Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues in England. I was working in the States by then. I came across this paper and I said to myself, “This is something interesting and important for trying to understand why children with autism are impaired in pragmatics, particularly.” So I got interested in Theory of Mind. Early on I was visiting in England and I visited with Simon Baron-Cohen. So that’s how I got started editing the books with him and pursuing my own line of research investigating the interaction and interconnection between language and theory of mind in autism. (more…)

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