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Autism Research Update 2008

Earlier Diagnosis

Two researchers at the University of Florida have found that autistic babies learn to crawl and walk differently than normal babies. Osnat and Philip Teitelbaum have looked at thousands of hours of home videos taken by parents of autistic children over a five-year period. They have found unmistakable movement patterns in these children that are explained in their book, Does Your Baby Have Autism. (Orlando Sentinel, J. Fletcher, 6/27/08, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/lifestyle/orl-autisticbaby08jul08,0,6113718.story).

University of Washington researchers are trying to find early clues to short-circuit autism before it is full-blown. In January they started a $11.3 million trial to see if autism can be prevented by rewiring babies’ brains with the goal of teaching parents to give the child that missing piece that he’s not getting on his own. Their view is that autism is both genetic and congenital. The study tracks 200 infant siblings, 6 months or younger, of children with autism. The strong hereditary nature of autism means that 10 or more babies will develop it. The group is divided into two randomly selected groups. One will be monitored but not given treatment. The other will coach mothers on engaging with their children, who will later receive up to 25 hours a week of developmental intervention using play to teach appropriate behavior. (The Seattle Times, K. Song, 5/22/08, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004430936_autism22m.html )

Mel Rutherford, from McMaster University, has developed a 10-minute test to measure if babies as young as nine months are at high risk of autism. Her continuing experiment puts babies in a car seat, using an eye tracker to observe their interest in images on a computer screen. Babies at 9 months who are less drawn to faces and less likely to follow a change in eye direction are at high risk for autism. Thus far, 40 babies have been tested at 3, 6, 9 and 12 months. The results have yet to be published, and the test is as yet not used to diagnose babies. (Globe And Mail, A. McIlroy, 5/16/08, The Wall Street Journal, J. Singer-Vine, 7/8/08, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121545978096433273.html?mod+dist_smartbrief ).

A neuroscience study at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands has discovered that the brains of autistic people have fewer neurons in the area specializing in facial recognition. Though they can see the faces, they cannot process facial expressions due to a breakdown in specific neural circuitry. This continued research is part of the Brain Atlas Project, a larger study supported by Autism Speaks Autism Tissue Program. (Van Kooten et als, 2008. Neurons in the fusiform gyrus are fewer and smaller in autism. Brain, 131(4):987-999).

Vaccines

A California study over a 12-year period is the first hard evidence to disprove that thimerisol plays no role in autism. Published in Archives of General Psychiatry, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study compared the rates of autism in California before and after the removal of thimerisol from childhood vaccines seven years ago. Until 2001, most childhood vaccines included thimerisol, thereby exposing young children to mercury. But autism rates continued to increase. Rates of autism for 3-year olds climbed from 0.3 per 1,000 births in 1993 to 1.3 per 1,000 births on 2003. Similar increases occurred for children of all ages. But many say it is too soon to rule out thimerisol. A board member of the National Autism Association, Lyn Redwood, pointed out that it was common for pregnant women to get flu shots, which contain thimerisol, exposing the fetus to mercury. As many as 1.5 million people in the U.S. now have autism (California study finds no link between vaccine ingredient, autism, E. Aliday, California Chronicle, 1/8/08. (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/01/07/MNF7UAQI1.DTL )

Genetic Links

Researchers at UC Davis Medical Center examined blood from children with and without autism and found 11 genes, all governing “natural killer” immune cells, that are more active in autistic children than others. Though in its very preliminary stages, the study supports theories that some kind of infectious agent early in life plays a role in autism. Similarities were found in all autistic children, as well as interesting differences as to when the symptoms became apparent. Some symptoms are seen very early, while others do not appear until approximately 18 months or more. Children in the latter group, called “regressive autism” had nearly 500 genes that activated differently than those autistic children with “early onset”. This suggests that the two groups have totally different pathology. All autism groups, however, shared the 11 natural killer immune cells. This confirms earlier work suggesting an autism-immune system link. A prior study found that autistic children had 20% more B cells (an immune cell that produces antibodies) and 40% more natural killer cells. (These attack tumors, viruses and other invaders). (The Sacramento Bee, C. Dahlberg, 1/25/08, http://www.sacbee.com/101/story/661144.html )

6 new genes have been discovered that are involved with autism. Children’s Hospital in Boston led the research, concluding that every child with autism has their own particular cause of it, but that genes play a significant role. Autism is too individual to envision an easy gene test for it, with only about 15% of autism cases have a known genetic cause. Autism results from problems in how experience sculpts the developing brain. Study ties 6 genes to autism, L. Neergaard, The Record, 7/11/08).

Researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio published a study showing statistically significant links between mercury emissions and autism. The study found that community autism prevalence was reduced by 1-2% with each 10 miles of distance from the pollution source. It is to be noted that children younger than school age were not counted in the study and that the Texas autism rate, 1:500, was lower than the national average, 1:150.

  • Autism rates were examined in 1,040 Texas school districts.
  • Mercury release data were from 39 coal-fired power plants and 56 industrial facilities in Texas.
  • For every 1,000 pounds of mercury released by Texas power plants in 1998, a corresponding 3.7% increase in autism rates occurred in Texas school districts in 2002.

Effects of persistent, low-dose exposure to mercury pollution in addition to fish consumption required further investigation. The authors concluded that a fetus exposed to environmental toxins during critical windows of neural development, and who was genetically susceptible, may get developmental disorders such as autism. ( ScienceDaily, 4/25/08, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080424120953.htm )

Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston discovered that a tiny piece of chromosome 16 is missing or duplicated in about 1% of autistic children. The Autism Resource Exchange analyzed genetic tests of 751 families with one or more autistic children. Five of those with autism had missing genetic information on chromosome 16, a phenomenon called deletion. In all five cases the parents of the child did not have the deletion, suggesting that autism was not inherited but occurred spontaneously. (ABC News Medical Unit, A. Grayson, 1/9/08, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=4110941&page=1 )

Brains of autistic adults are wired differently, according to researchers affiliated with the University of Washington’s Autism Center. The most socially impaired subjects showed the most abnormal brain pattern in brain areas involving the processing of faces. This study was the first to look at brain connectivity and social impairment. (ScienceDaily, ‘Faulty’ Brain Connections May Be Responsible For Social Impairments in Autism, 6/12/08, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080612131223.htm )

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, released a study reinforcing genetic links with autism. It found that a schizophrenic parent or mother with psychiatric problems roughly doubled a child’s risk of autism. Which genes lie behind the various forms of autism is poorly understood, but the association is strongest with a parent having schizophrenia. (Reuters, 5/6/08, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24465288/ )

ADHD and Autism

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC have received $3 million from the National Institute of Mental Health to study ADHD and medication in autistic children. This 10 week clinical trial will recruit 144 children from ages 5-13 who have autism with ADHD symptoms, beginning in September. The safety and effectiveness of two treatments- Strattera, a nonstimulant medication, and parent management training teaching behavioral interventions, will be examined. After the trial, the patients will be followed another six months. (PsychCentral, ADHD with Autism Explored, R. Nauert, 6/27/08, http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/06/27/adhd-with-autism-explored/2516.html)

Preemies

Children born under weight or early, especially girls, have more than double the risk of having autism. Investigators looked at 565 children with autism born in metropolitan Atlanta between 1986 and 1993, and compared them to a set of children without autism, as well as to those with other developmental disabilities. Overall, low birth weight was associated with a two-fold increased risk for autism. There was also the risk for developing autism in babies born prematurely, though this was primarily due to a more than five-fold increased risk in girls born early. The findings support the idea that there are different kinds of autism and different mechanisms underlying those causes. (Forbes, Being Born Small, Early Raises Autism Risk, 6/1/08, http://www.forbes.com/forbeslife/health/feeds/hscout/2008/06/02/hscout615992.html )

Girls with autism are under-diagnosed. Early intervention people do not recognize the symptoms, though they are identical to the behaviors in boys. (ABC News, Underdiagnosed Girls With Autism Struggle To Fit In, J. Donvan, 1/23/08).

Treatment

The federal government is pushing a study on chelation therapy for autistic children, though there is no proof that it works. Used to treat lead poisoning, the theory is that chelation removes mercury from the body caused by childhood vaccinations. Many thousands of autistic children are believed to be using this therapy at the present time. (Researchers push study of autism treatment, C. Johnson, The Record, 7/9/08).