The benefits of early intervention for kids with an ASD
Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who received early intervention tend to have better brain function, communication skills and overall social behavior compared to ASD children with no early intervention, researchers from the Yale School of Medicine reported in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder (November 2012 issue).
They added that the brains of kids with autism appear to respond well to “pivotal response treatment” if it is provided early on. The program, which requires parental involvement as well as “play” situations, was created specifically for children with autism.
The new technique incorporates learning and development factors which are easy to use with very young children.
Researchers closing in on gene mutations linked to autism
Researchers from The Scripps Research Institute reported in the journal Cell (November 2012 issue) that they are discovering how genetic mutations can be responsible for the behavioral and cognitive problems found in people with an ASD.
SynGAP1 is estimated to cause disabilities in about 1 million people around the world. It is known to be directly involved in raising autism risk.
The authors explained that genetic mutations that cause ASDs generally affect synapses. A significant proportion of children with severe behavioral and intellectual impairments are believed to carry singly mutations in key neurodevelopmental genes.
Head researcher, Prof. Gavin Rumbaugh, said "In this study, we did something no one else had done before. Using an animal model, we looked at a mutation known to cause intellectual disability and showed for the first time a causative link between abnormal synapse maturation during brain development and life-long cognitive disruptions commonly seen in adults with a neurodevelopmental disorder. There are a few genes that can't be altered without affecting normal cognitive abilities. SynGAP1 is one of the most important genes in cognition - so far, every time a mutation that disrupts the function of SynGAP1 has been found, that individual's brain simply could not develop correctly. It regulates the development of synaptic function like no other gene I've seen."
Flu and persistent fever during pregnancy raise autism risk
If a pregnant woman gets the flu or has a fever that persists for more than one week, there is a greater chance that her offspring will be diagnosed with an ASD by the age of three, researchers from the University of Aarhus, Denmark, reported in the journal Pediatrics (November, 12th, 2012 issue).
The scientists examined data on 96,736 children in Denmark from 1997 to 2003. They found that non-flu respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, genital infections, colds and sinus infections during pregnancy were not associated with a higher risk of autism for the baby.
However, the following illnesses and circumstances did increase the risk of the child later on being diagnosed with an ASD:
- Influenza during pregnancy - doubles autism risk for the child
- Persistent fever during pregnancy - that lasted for at least one week triples autism risk for the child
- Antibiotic usage during pregnancy - slightly raises autism risk for the child
Head researcher, Hjordis Osk Atladottir, MD, PhD, emphasized that autism risk for pregnant mothers who catch the flu or those with a persistent fever should not be alarmed - 98% of those who did become ill in their study went on to give birth to “healthy” babies who never developed an ASD.
Brain’s chemistry develops differently in children with an ASD
Certain chemicals in the brains of children between 3 and 10 years of age with an ASD (autism spectrum disorder) develop differently compared to those with idiopathic (of unknown cause) developmental disorders.
Researchers from the University of Washington, Seattle, wrote in JAMA Psychiatry that creatine, choline and N-acetylaspartate, chemicals found in the brain’s gray matter, develop at different rates among children with an ASD.
The authors wrote "The results from our study suggest that a dynamic brain developmental process underlies autism spectrum disorder, whereas the children with developmental disorder exhibited a different, more static developmental pattern of brain chemical changes."
The scientists found that among 3 to 4 year-old children with an ASD the pattern of chemical changes within the brain was similar to those detected in patients with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury. For example, in multiple sclerosis levels of N-acetylaspartate are low when symptoms first appear.
Recent research on links to autism risk
Parents with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia - a child whose parent, brother, or sister has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia has a higher risk of being diagnosed with an ASD, scientists from The University of North Carolina reported in Archives of General Psychiatry (July 2012).
Older fathers - if the father is older during conception, there is a greater risk of autism for the baby. Scientists explained in the journal Nature that an older father has a greater chance of passing on new mutations to his babies than older mothers.
Immune system irregularities - Caltech (California Institute of Technology) researchers reported in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) (July 2012) that certain changes in an overactive immune system can contribute to autism-like behaviors in mice. In some cases, this activation may be related to how a fetus develops while in the womb.
Specific gene mutations - scientists from the Seattle Children's Research Institute found new gene mutations which were linked to the development of autism, epilepsy, hydrocephalus and cancer. The mutations were in the following genes - AKT3, PIK3R2 and PIK3CA. Their study was published in Nature Genetics (July 2012).
Air traffic pollution during pregnancy and autism link - if a pregnant mother is exposed to air traffic pollution during her pregnancy, the risk of autism in her offspring is greater, researchers from the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles reported in Archives of General Psychiatry (November 2012 issue).
The investigators wrote "Exposures to traffic-related air pollution, PM (particulate matter) and nitrogen dioxide were associated with an increased risk of autism. These effects were observed using measures of air pollution with variation on both local and regional levels, suggesting the need for further study to understand both individual pollutant contributions and the effects of pollutant mixtures on disease."
You can view more of the latest research into autism by visiting our autism news category.