4/13 - Latest in Autism News

Brain Activity in infants predicts language outcomes in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can produce strikingly different clinical outcomes in young children, with some having strong conversation abilities and others not talking at all. A study published by Cell Press April 9th in Neuron reveals the reason: At the very first signs of possible autism in infants and toddlers, neural activity in language-sensitive brain regions is already similar to normal in those ASD toddlers who eventually go on to develop good language ability but nearly absent in those who later have a poor language outcome.

"Why some toddlers with ASD get better and develop good language and others do not has been a mystery that is of the utmost importance to solve," says senior author Eric Courchesne, co-director of the UC San Diego Autism Center, where the study was designed and conducted. "Discovering the early neural bases for these different developmental trajectories now opens new avenues to finding causes and treatments specific to these two very different subtypes of autism."

The researchers studied 60 ASD and 43 non-ASD infants and toddlers using the natural sleep functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) method developed by the UCSD Autism Center investigators to record brain activity in the participants as they listened to excerpts from children's stories. All toddlers were clinically followed until early childhood to make a final determination of which ones eventually had good versus poor language outcomes.

In ASD, good language outcomes by early childhood were preceded by normal patterns of neural activity in language-sensitive brain regions, including superior temporal cortex, during infant and toddler ages. By contrast, ASD children with poor language outcomes showed very little activity in superior temporal cortex when they were toddlers or infants.

"Our study is important because it's one of the first large-scale studies to identify very early neural precursors that help to differentiate later emerging and clinically relevant heterogeneity in early language development in ASD toddlers," says first author Michael Lombardo of the University of Cyprus.

The researchers also found that, when combined with behavioral tests, these striking early neural differences may help predict later language outcome by early childhood. The prognostic accuracy of the combined neural and behavioral measures was 80%, compared with 68% for each measure alone. "One of the first things parents of a toddler with ASD want to know is what lies ahead for their child," says co-author Karen Pierce, also co-director of the UC San Diego Autism Center. "These findings open insight into the first steps that lead to different clinical and treatment outcomes, and in the future, one can imagine clinical evaluation and treatment planning incorporating multiple accurate behavioral and medical prognostic assessments. That would be a huge practical benefit for families."

Moving forward, the researchers will further investigate the early neural functional substrates that precede and underlie language and social heterogeneity in ASD. They also plan to test the idea that activation, or its absence, in language cortex predicts treatment responsiveness in toddlers with ASD. Moreover, future research on the molecular underpinnings of variable clinical outcomes in individuals with ASD could pave the way for the development of novel pharmacological interventions. "Understanding that there are discrete subgroups of early developing ASD that are distinguished by developmental behavioral trajectories, neural underpinnings, and brain-behavioral relationships, really lays the groundwork for a whole range of really fruitful directions," Lombardo says.

April 9, 2015, Cell PressNote: Materials may be edited for content and length.

 

3/24 - Latest in Autism News

Father urges research: Can antibiotics improve autism symptoms?

John Rodakis, the parent of a child with autism was not looking to launch an international investigation into the microbiome (the collection of microorganisms that live on and in us) and autism, but, as he describes in his newly published article in the scientific journal Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, when his young son's autism unexpectedly and dramatically improved while taking an antibiotic for strep throat, he began a quest to understand why.

Following the surprise improvement, Mr. Rodakis, who in addition to being a parent is also a medical venture capitalist with a background in molecular biology and a Harvard MBA, began to examine the medical literature where he found a lone study from 1999 conducted at Chicago Rush Children's hospital that documented a similar phenomenon in autistic children. After speaking with other parents and clinicians he discovered that improvements on antibiotics such the one his son experienced were frequently observed, but not well studied. "I was determined to understand what was happening in the hope of helping both my son and millions of other children with autism."

The Father's quest led him to world-renowned autism researcher Dr. Richard Frye, head of the Autism Research Program at Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute and his team and together they began a collaboration that grew to include other researchers from many different medical disciplines from all parts of the world. As the parent/researcher collaboration intensified, two ideas emerged: that the group should design a research trial to try to understand this unusual phenomenon and to hold a scientific conference on autism and the microbiome. "Careful parental observations can be crucial. In science we take these observations, put them through the scientific method, and see what we find. This is what can lead to ground breaking scientific discoveries and breakthroughs in the field", said Dr. Frye.

This past June, the group held a first-of-its-kind conference: The First International Symposium on the Microbiome in Health and Disease with a Special Focus on Autism which was co-sponsored by Mr. Rodakis' newly formed non-profit N of One: Autism Research Foundation. As a result of that conference, a special issue on Autism and The Microbiome is being published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease. The issue features articles from conference presenters and others including an article by Mr. Rodakis, titled "An n=1 case report of a child with autism improving on antibiotics and a father's quest to understand what it may mean."

March 24, 2015, By Brooks Hays

3/20 - Latest in Autism News

Autistic and Non-Autistic Brain Differences Isolated for First Time

The function of the autistic and non-autistic brain differences have been isolated for the first time, following the development of a new methodology for analysing MRI scans.

Developed by researchers at the University of Warwick, the methodology, called Brain-Wide Association Analysis (BWAS), is the first capable of creating panoramic views of the whole brain and provides scientists with an accurate 3D model to study.

The researchers used BWAS to identify regions of the brain that may make a major contribution to the symptoms of autism.

BWAS does so by analysing 1,134,570,430 individual pieces of data; covering the 47,636 different areas of the brain, called voxels, which comprise a functional MRI (fMRI) scan and the connections between them.

Previous methodologies were process this level of data and were restricted to modelling only limited areas.

The ability to analyse the entire data set from an fMRI scan provided the Warwick researchers the opportunity to compile, compare and contrast accurate computer models for both autistic and non-autistic brains.

Led by BWAS developer Professor Jianfeng Feng, from the University of Warwick's Department of Computer Science, the researchers collected the data from hundreds of fMRI scans of autistic and non-autistic brains.

By comparing the two subsequent models the researchers isolated twenty examples of difference, where the connections between voxels of the autistic brain were stronger or weaker than the non-autistic .

The identified differences include key systems involved with brain functions relating to autism. Professor Feng explained the findings:

"We identified in the autistic model a key system in the temporal lobe visual cortex with reduced cortical functional connectivity. This region is involved with the face expression processing involved in social behaviour. This key system has reduced functional connectivity with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in emotion and social communication."

The researchers also identified in autism a second key system relating to reduced cortical functional connectivity, a part of the parietal lobe implicated in spatial functions.

They propose that these two types of functionality, face expression-related, and of one's self and the environment, are important components of the computations involved in theory of mind, whether of oneself or of others, and that reduced connectivity within and between these regions may make a major contribution to the symptoms of autism.

The researchers argue that the methodology can potentially isolate the areas of the brain involved with other cognitive problems, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, ADHD and schizophrenia.

By using meta-analysis and a rigorous statistics approach the Warwick researchers were able to collect and use a big data set to obtain significant results, the likes of which have not been seen in autistic literature before. Professor Feng explains:

"We used BWAS to analyse resting state fMRI data collected from 523 autistic people and 452 controls. The amount of data analysed helped to achieve the sufficient statistical power necessary for this first voxel-based, comparison of whole autistic and non-autistic brains. Until the development of BWAS this had not been possible.

"BWAS tests for differences between patients and controls in the connectivity of every pair of voxels at a whole brain level. Unlike previous seed-based or independent components-based approaches, this method has the great advantage of being fully unbiased in that the connectivity of all brain voxels can be compared, not just selected brain regions."

 March 20, 2015, Science Daily, University of WarwickNote: Materials may be edited for content and length.

3/13 - Latest in Autism News

Autism Risk genes also linked to higher intelligence

Genes linked with a greater risk of developing autism may also be associated with higher intelligence, a study suggests. Researchers have found new evidence linking genetic factors associated with autism to better cognitive ability in people who do not have the condition.

The relationship between autism and intelligence is not clear, researchers say. Although up to 70 per cent of individuals with autism have an intellectual disability, some people with the disorder have relatively well-preserved, or even higher than average, non-verbal intelligence, the team says.

Autism is a developmental disability that can cause significant language and speech difficulties. Non-verbal intelligence enables people to solve complex problems using visual and hands-on reasoning skills requiring little or no use of language.

Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Queensland analysed almost 10,000 people recruited from the general population of Scotland. Individuals were tested for general cognitive ability and had their DNA analysed.

The team found that even among people who never develop autism, carrying genetic traits associated with the disorder is, on average, linked to scoring slightly better on cognitive tests.

Researchers found further evidence of a link between autism-associated genes and intelligence when they carried out the same tests on 921 adolescents who were part of the Brisbane Adolescent Twin Study.

The study is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. The research was funded by the Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government Health and Social Care Directorates, Scottish Funding Council, The Wellcome Trust, The Medical Research Council and Age UK.

Dr Toni-Kim Clarke, of the University of Edinburgh's Division of Psychiatry, who led the study, said: "Our findings show that genetic variation which increases risk for autism is associated with better cognitive ability in non-autistic individuals. As we begin to understand how genetic variants associated with autism impact brain function, we may begin to further understand the nature of autistic intelligence."

Professor Nick Martin, of the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, said: "Links between autism and better cognitive function have been suspected and are widely implied by the well-known "Silicon Valley syndrome" and films such as "Rain Man" as well as in popular literature. This study suggests genes for autism may actually confer, on average, a small intellectual advantage in those who carry them, provided they are not affected by autism."

March 10, University of Edinburgh, Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.