1/27 - Latest in Autism News

Brain study sheds light on how children with autism process social play

Brain scans confirm significant differences in play behavior, brain activation patterns and stress levels in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as compared with typically developing children.

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers at Vanderbilt University examined social play exchanges on multiple levels, revealing associations among brain regions, behavior and arousal in children with ASD. The results were released in the journal Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience.

"Play is a fundamental skill in childhood and an area in which children with autism often have difficulty," said the study's principal investigator, Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator. "However, the psychobiological study of play in autism is seldom comprehensively investigated using multiple levels of analysis."

Corbett and colleague Kale Edmiston studied children with ASD using an innovative study design in which participants played with a typically developing child on a playground and then played a social exchange game with either the same child or a computer partner during functional imaging. To measure physiological arousal, salivary cortisol sampling was used before and after the playground protocol.

During a functional MRI (fMRI) scan, participants played a game in which they were asked to cooperate or to compete with a co-player. For half of the game, participants were told they were playing with a child they had just met on the playground. For the other half of the game, children were told they were playing with a computer. However, the children were actually playing with a computer the entire time.

"When participants with ASD were in the MRI scanner and thought they were playing with the child they had just met, their brain activation patterns did not differ from when they thought they were playing with a computer," said Edmiston, who is completing a doctorate in the Vanderbilt Brain Institute Neuroscience Graduate program. "In contrast, typically developing children showed unique activation patterns based on which partner they were playing. This suggests that social agents might not be processed in the brains of people with ASD differently than nonsocial agents."

Corbett said the findings suggest that "some children with autism not only find social engagement with peers less motivating, but it may be stressful, even aversive."

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Vanderbilt University Medical CenterNote: Materials may be edited for content and length.

1/14/15 - Latest in Autism News

Advanced 3-D facial imaging may aid in early detection of autism

Autism is a spectrum of closely related disorders diagnosed in patients who exhibit a shared core of symptoms, including delays in learning to communicate and interact socially. Early detection of autism in children is the key for treatments to be most effective and produce the best outcomes. Using advanced three-dimensional imaging and statistical analysis techniques, researchers at the University of Missouri have identified facial measurements in children with autism that may lead to a screening tool for young children and provide clues to its genetic causes.

We want to detect the specific facial traits of the face of a child with autism," said Ye Duan, associate professor of computer science in the College of Engineering at MU. "Doing so might help us define the facial structures common to children with autism and potentially enable early screening for the disorder."

Expanding upon previous studies using two-dimensional imaging, Duan, working with Judith Miles, professor emerita of child health-genetics in the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at MU, used a system of cameras to photograph and generate three-dimensional images of children's faces.

The children selected were between 8 and 12 years old. One group of children had been diagnosed with autism by the Thompson Center; the other group consisted of typically developing children. Researchers photographed the faces of children using three-dimensional imaging, which allowed scientists to measure distances along the curvature of the face rather than in a straight line as had been done in previous tests. Duan then ran sophisticated statistical analyses to measure minute differences in the facial measurements of each group.

"It all started from a clinical observation," Miles said. "Over years of treating children, I noticed that a portion of those diagnosed with autism tend to look alike with similar facial characteristics. I thought perhaps there was something more than coincidence at play. The differences were not abnormal, rather they appeared analogous to similarities observed among siblings. Using three-dimensional images and statistical analysis, we created a 'fine-tuned map' of children's faces and compared those measurements to the various symptoms they exhibit. By clustering the groups based on their facial measurements and recording their autism symptoms, we wanted to determine whether subgroups based on facial structure correlate with autism symptoms and severity."

The group's analyses revealed three distinct subgroups of children with autism who had similar measurement patterns in their facial features. These subgroups also shared similarities in the type and severity of their autism symptoms.

Miles said that next steps include inviting other research groups to replicate our findings and to perform DNA analyses to look for specific genes associated with each subgroup. Identifying genes associated with each subtype of autism could potentially lead to the development of more effective treatments and drug therapies, she said.

The team's paper, "Facial structure analysis separates autism spectrum disorders into meaningful clinical subgroups," was funded in part by the Department of Defense's Medical Research and Development Program and was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

University of Missouri-Columbia

1/10 - Latest in Autism News

Can Pets Help Boost Social Skills for Kids With Autism?

The findings are among the first to investigate possible links between pets and social skills in kids with an autism spectrum disorder -- a group of developmental disorders that affect a child's ability to communicate and socialize. 

"Research in the area of pets for children with autism is very new and limited. But it may be that the animals helped to act as a type of communication bridge, giving children with autism something to talk about with others," said study author Gretchen Carlisle, a researcher at the University of Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine and Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders. "We know this happens with adults and typically developing children."

She said the study showed a difference in social skills that was significantly greater for children with autism living with any pet.

But, the associations are weak, according to autism expert Dr. Glen Elliott, chief psychiatrist and medical director of Children's Health Council in Palo Alto, Calif.

"One absolutely cannot assume that dog ownership is going to improve an autistic child's social skills, certainly not from this study," he said.

It's also important to note that while this study found a difference in social skills in children with autism who had pets at home, the study wasn't designed to prove whether or not pet ownership was the actual cause of those differences.

A large body of research, described in the study's background, has found dog owners share close bonds with their pets. Past research also shows that pets can provide typically developing children with emotional support.

Pets have also been shown to help facilitate social interaction. And, pets have been linked to greater empathy and social confidence in typically developing children. Past research in children with autism has focused only on service dogs, therapy dogs, equine-assisted therapy and dolphins, Carlisle said.

Carlisle wanted to see if having a family pet might make a difference in children with autism. To do so, she conducted a telephone survey with 70 parents of children diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorder. The parents answered questions about their child's attachment to their dog and their child's social skills, such as communication, responsibility, assertiveness, empathy, engagement and self-control.

Carlisle also interviewed the children about their attachment to their pets. The children were between the ages of 8 and 18. Each child had an IQ of at least 70, according to the study.

The study found that 57 households owned any pets at all. Among those families, 47 owned dogs and 36 had cats. Other pets included fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, a bird and a spider.

The study results showed no significant differences in overall or individual social skills between children who owned dogs and those who didn't. But, owning a dog for longer periods of time was weakly linked to stronger social skills and fewer problem behaviors after accounting for a child's age, the researcher found.

The study could not show whether having a dog influenced children's social skills or whether more socially capable children were more likely to own a dog.

Compared to the 13 children without pets, those who owned any pet -- whether a dog or not -- showed slightly more assertiveness, such as willingness to approach others or respond to others. However, the study only included children whose parents said their children would answer questions on the telephone. No other differences in social skills or problem behaviors existed between the pet-owning and non-pet-owning children, according to the study.

The findings were published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

"Although the author makes a case for possible advantages of having a pet, specifically a dog, for higher functioning children with autism spectrum disorders, parents should look carefully at these results and their own circumstances," Elliott said.

He noted there were no statistically significant findings shown in the study data. The study also didn't consider whether pet ownership could have negative effects, according to Elliott.

"The effects are not especially robust and could just as easily be a result of more socially competent children with autism spectrum disorders being attracted to dogs as a relatively safe, low-demand but high-yield form of social contact," Elliot noted.

Pets are less complex and demanding than people, Elliott added. Some children with autism may be able to better exercise social skills with the right kind of pet, but the evidence does not yet show that this behavior extends to interactions with people.

Both Elliott and Carlisle said it's essential for parents to consider their ability to care for any pet before getting one.

"Thinking about the time demands of the pet, the child's sensory issues and family lifestyle when choosing a pet are important to increasing the likelihood for the successful integration of that new pet into the family," Carlisle said. "For example, a child sensitive to loud noises may respond better to a quiet pet."

But Elliott said parents should not mistakenly believe that the potentially positive addition of a pet to a household will be the answer to a child's social difficulties.

"The idea that animals -- dogs, horses, dolphins, to name a few -- can uniquely 'get through' to children with autism is not new," Elliott said. "It certainly seems to be a source of pleasure for some children with autism -- and for many without autism also -- but it is not a cure for an underlying disorder."

MONDAY, Jan. 5, 2015, By Tara Haelle, HealthDay News

12/27 - Latest in Autism News

Different Gene Mutations May Determine Severity, Type of Autism

 Different types of gene mutations may play a role in the severity and type of autism, new research suggests.

The findings could lead to improved diagnosis and treatments for the disorder, the researchers added.

No two people with autism have the exact type and severity of behaviors, according to background information from the study. Investigators analyzed hundreds of autism patients and nearly 1,000 genes to determine how gene mutations influence autism symptoms.

They found that more damaging genetic mutations usually result in more severe autism symptoms, that autism patients with little or no verbal skills often have mutations in genes that are more active in the brain, and that those with less severe autism symptoms were less likely to have mutations that completely shut down genes.

The researchers also found that gene mutations play a role in gender differences in autism. While autism is far more common in males, females with autism are more likely to have severe symptoms.

The genes that are mutated in females with autism have greater activity in the brain than those that are mutated in males with autism, according to the study published Dec. 22 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

"If we can understand how different mutations lead to different features of [autism], we may be able to use patients' genetic profiles to develop accurate diagnostic and prognostic tools, and perhaps personalize treatment," senior study author Dennis Vitkup, an associate professor of systems biology and biomedical informatics at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, said in a university news release.

-- Dec. 22, 2014 (HealthDay News), Preidt