12/14 - Latest in Autism News

Rutgers neuroscientist identifies 'ignored' symptom of autism

At an Autism Awareness Month celebration at Children's Specialized Hospital recently, plenty of people tried their hand at the hospital's 'Chalk My Autism' project. If you want to add your own chalk drawing, email it to chalkmyautism@childrens-specialised.org.

A Rutgers neuroscientist who examined MRI images of more than 1,000 people with autism now says a constant stream of involuntary "micro-movements" throughout the body are a core symptom of the disorder.

These unusual motor patterns continue to exist even if the patient is medicated, Associate Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Torres writes in an article about her research. Her research was published recently in Nature Scientific Reports. 

"The person doesn't even know they're doing it. And they may not be visible to the naked eye," she said. "But they end up interfering with the nervous system because they're random noise."

The problem shows up even if the person is taking medication for autism symptoms, she said. While medication helps in some cases, it can also make the problem worse, she wrote. 

Torres said does not believe the movements cause autism but sees them as sympton worthy of investigation.

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Torres, who specializes in sensory-motor integration research, said she stumbled up a treasure trove of data when talking with a colleague about MRIs of the brain.

Anyone who has ever had that procedure knows the patient is instructed not to move. 

"But that's impossible. Everybody moves. We breathe, we have a heart beat, digestion - that's all motion," Torres said in recounting her perplexity. She learned that evidence of micro-movements is routinely scrubbed from images to eliminate any blurs they cause.

She next looked at the scrubbed data - the very stuff usually discarded - for more than 1,000 MRI patients who had an autism diagnosis.

She discovered they show far more motion that normal - a nearly constant barrage of signals that can overwhelm the brain. That matches what autism patients have told her over the years: "It's as though my body has a mind of its own. When I tell my body where to go, it takes the scenic route. It takes my body too long to get there."

Her response is, "It's not that you're dumb. It's that you're trying to do what a typical person's brain does so quickly."

The research has gotten some attention in the field of autism research because it focuses on bio-rhythms instead of genetics or behavior, she said.

"Science is stuck in researching what is the cause of autism," she said. We should be asking, 'What can we do to improve the lives of these people?'"

December 12, 2016, Kathleen O'Brien | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com