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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.”

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A new Mayo Clinic study, published in the August 1 edition of Pediatrics,  finds that autistic kids in the study were more likely than their nonautistic counterparts to be picky eaters or constipated. But the researchers did not find a significant difference between the two groups when it came to diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, bloating, reflux or vomiting.

According to Pediatrics, “as constipation and feeding issues/food selectivity often have a behavioral etiology, data suggest that a neurobehavioral rather than a primary organic gastrointestinal etiology may account for the higher incidence of these gastrointestinal symptoms in children with autism.”

For years, parents, physicians and researchers have wondered whether people with autism suffered from more digestive problems than the rest of the population. Many autistic children are following aggressive medical regimens aimed at treating suspected gut trouble, including multiple nutritional supplements, and anti-fungal, anti viral and antibiotic medications. Some also are on a restrictive diet.

Pediatrics is the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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