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Recent Developments in Autism Research

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It is estimated that one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders. The exact cause is unknown but ongoing scientific studies search for the answer.

Autism Linked Gene Variation Alters Brain’s Connective Wiring

In the November 3, 2010 issue of Science Translational Medicine, Ashley Scott-Van Zeeland, Ph.D, and colleagues published a research article which provided evidence that variations in the autism linked gene, CNTNAP2, was associated with altered patterns in brain activity. CNTNAP2 is active in a developing fetus and contains the information for a protein that links early brain cells together to form networks that convey information from one part of the brain to another.

The researchers compared the brain scans of 32 boys between 10 and 14 years old. Half of the boys had an autism spectrum disorder while half did not. Nine of the boys from both groups had the autism spectrum disorders associated variation of CNTNAP2. Among the children with CNTNAP2 variations associated with autism, activity originating in the frontal lobe was tightly linked with other nearby regions within the right and left sides of the frontal lobe. Connections from the frontal lobe to the back of the brain were greatly reduced. The frontal lobe is involved with planning, organizing, judgment and abstract thinking.

“This finding is among the first to show how a gene associated with autism may affect communications within the brain,” said Alan E. Guttmacher, M.D., director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Technological Advances to Detect Risk of Autism

Technological advancements made by a team of researchers in the United States and Austria may help identify children whose language development may be atypical and could be at risk for autism. The researchers use an all-day recording device to make realistic recordings of children’s vocalization. According to Autism Speaks.org, children’s early language development has always been a challenge to measure. By analyzing syllable patterns, the researchers were able to reliably distinguish groups of children with autism, children with language delay and typically developing children. Vocalization patterns of children with autism were characteristically different from those of typically developing children. If further independent studies demonstrate the efficiency, portability and relative ease of use of this new technology, it may offer another helpful screening tool for autism.

Trial Demonstrates Caregiver Mediation Helps Toddlers with Autism

Numerous studies show that toddlers who engage in non-verbal communication, such as pointing to objects of interest, with their parents and caregivers, learn language faster. In an article published in the September 2010 issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, the results of an eight week intervention which focused on the development of play routines showed promising results for children with autism. Parents and caregivers actively participated, maintained and expanded upon the children’s play activity. The goal was to engage the children in shared play activity for longer periods of time and facilitate the children’s social communications and language behaviors. The children in this trial intervention developed strong joint attention skills. These gains were either maintained or improved one year following termination of the intervention.

Sources: Science Translational Medicine, November 3, 2010, vol.2 issue 56
“Altered Functional Connectivity in Frontal Lobe Circuits Is Associated with Variation in the Autism Risk Gene CNTNAP2” by Ashley A. Scott-Van Zeeland, et al.

NICHD: Researchers Tie Gene Variations To Alteration in Brain Network

Autism Speaks.org: Technological advances in measuring language
Trial demonstrates that caregivers can teach joint engagement skills

Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, September 2010
“Randomized controlled caregiver mediated joint engagement intervention for toddlers with autism” by C. Kasari, et al

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