Doctors have defined autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a neurobiological developmental condition that can impact communication, sensory processing, and social interactions. Although recent research has advanced the understanding of autism, there is much more to learn about the factors that influence this neurotype.
As of March 26, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that among 8-year-old children,
With autism rates on the increase, the scientific community has become all the more interested in uncovering the factors linked with autism.
Some scientists speculate that
The latest autism research includes investigations into factors associated with this neurotype, as well as genetic variants, gut biome imbalances, and neurological factors that may contribute to it.
In this Special Feature, Medical News Today examines the latest scientific discoveries and what researchers have learned about autism.
A multiyear study funded by the CDC is underway to learn more about factors potentially linked to autism.
One of the goals of the study is discovering what health conditions occur in autistic and neurotypical children and what factors are associated with the likelihood of developing ASD.
Another objective of the study is to differentiate the physical and behavioral characteristics of autistic children, children with other developmental conditions, and those without these conditions.
This ongoing research has already produced several published studies. The latest found an association between ASD and a mother’s exposure to ozone pollution during the third trimester of pregnancy.
Researchers also found that exposure to another type of air pollution called particulate matter during an infant’s first year also increased the likelihood of the infant later receiving a diagnosis of ASD.
This research appears in the journal
Other avenues of research on autism include investigations into gene variants that could play a role in the development of ASD.
A recent study analyzed the DNA of more than 35,584 people worldwide, including 11,986 autistic individuals. The scientists identified variants in
The researchers also discovered that 53 of the genes identified were mostly associated with autism and not other developmental conditions.
Expanding the research further, the team found that autistic people who carried the
The gene variants the scientists identified mainly reside in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for complex behaviors.
These variants may play a role in how the brain neurons connect and also help turn other genes on or off — a possible factor that may contribute to autism.
Biological research has unearthed some interesting findings linking certain types of cell malfunctions to ASD.
Scientists at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Baltimore, MD, discovered a decrease in the integrity of myelin, a protective sheath surrounding nerve cells in the brain, in mice with a syndromic form of ASD.
The study, published in
This malfunction may lead to insufficient myelin production in the nerve cells and disrupt nerve communication in the brain, impairing brain development.
Using mouse models, researchers are now investigating treatments that could increase the myelination in the brain to see whether this improves ASD-associated behaviors that individuals may find challenging.
The gastrointestinal, or gut, microbiome is another area of interest to researchers looking for factors that contribute to autism.
One 2017 study, published in the journal
Investigators found that, after the MTT treatment, participants experienced more gut bacterial diversity.
Also observed in the participants treated with MTT was a decrease in gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, as well as improved language, social interaction, and behavioral symptoms.
In a 2-year follow-up
Scientists have also recently discovered a possible connection between genes and the gut microbiome.
When the mice were treated with Lactobacillus reuteri, a common bacterium missing from their microbiome, and a strain of gut bacteria commonly found in wild-type mice, their social behaviors improved.
Autism can be challenging to detect, especially in very young children.
Because of this, the scientific community is working toward finding innovative diagnostic methods that can help detect this neurotype much earlier.
Hearing tests may be one such diagnostic tool. Researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, and the University of Miami analyzed data from auditory brainstem response (ABR) hearing tests routinely given to infants shortly after birth in the state of Florida.
The team then matched the data to the Florida Department of Education records of those children who later received a diagnosis of a developmental condition.
Results showed that infants who later received an ASD diagnosis had slower brain responses to sounds during their ABR tests conducted at birth.
This study appears in the journal
The investigators hope to conduct more studies to determine whether the ABR test could help recognize autism at an early age.
Further advancements in recognizing autism include new research into biomarkers.
When analyzing data from the Children’s Autism Metabolome Project (CAMP), a
After optimizing these and previously discovered metabotypes into screening tests, the research team detected autism in
Study author Elizabeth L. R. Donley of Stemina Biomarker Discovery in Madison, WI, told MNT:
“Our approach to understanding the biology of autism is going to revolutionize how we diagnose and treat autism. Autism is diagnosed through behavioral assessment, but there are underlying biological reasons for the disruptions in neurodevelopment that result in the behaviors of autism.”
Donley said the differences her team has identified in the metabolism of autistic children can provide insight into more specific treatment options where necessary.
“The first metabolic subtypes we published from our clinical study, the [CAMP], may be addressable with a supplement. The biology of other subtypes may be targets for drugs or new indications for existing drugs,” Donley explained.
She added, “[O]ur approach identifies where dysregulation is occurring in the biology of the child so that therapies that address this biology can be prioritized rather than just trying anything and everything with no precision.”
The research team has already validated the first three of five planned panels that can identify subtypes of metabolism associated with autism. They expect to validate the remaining panels this year and begin the first clinical study of a paired therapy.
With the prevalence of autism on the rise, scientists persevere to uncover what factors are associated with this neurotype.
Their hope is that, once they identify causative factors, researchers could then develop screening tests for earlier detection and more targeted treatments for symptoms and health conditions related to autism.
At the same time, nonprofit advocacy organizations run by autistic people, such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), warn against regarding autism itself as something to be “treated” or “cured.”
The ASAN states that “[m]ost self-advocates agree that autism does not need to be cured. Instead of wasting time and money on something that is not possible and that autistic people do not want, we should focus on supporting autistic people to live good lives.”
“The most important thing,” the ASAN adds, “is that any therapy should help autistic people get what we want and need, not what other people think we need. Good therapies focus on helping us figure out our goals, and work with us to achieve them.”