Mar 31, 2012Science and Technology
Unraveling autism

Three-year-old Joey Adams, diagnosed with severe Autism Spectrum Disorder, during a therapy session.A slew of autism research has been making headlines recently. Since Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurological developmental disorder that has a lifelong impact on the children who suffer from it and the families who strive to provide the best quality of life for their autistic children, all this attention is a positive sign. April 2nd is Autism Awareness Day, along with April being dedicated to Autism, so it seemed fitting to review some of the current developments in autism research.

The most shocking and scariest news comes from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). This week, the CDC released a report that estimates that 1 in 88 children in the United States have some form of autism. The report was compiled from 14 different regions across the United States using 2008 data collected from The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. The report states that this is a 23 percent increase in prevalence from data released in 2006.

Unfortunately, scientists are unsure of why rates of autism are increasing. However, since the disease has a genetic component, many researchers feel that the increase in prevalence is due to an increase in screening for the disorder. This means that the rates of Autism will likely continue to climb as screening techniques advance.

Of course, the current screening techniques are based off the child’s behavior, and usually involve checklists and surveys. These techniques are time intensive and, sometimes, subjective. Therefore, researchers have recently published an article in “Translational Psychiatry” that has taken the first steps in developing a quick and cheap blood test for autism spectrum disorder.

The researchers accomplished this by taking blood samples from children already diagnosed with autism and a control group. The blood was analyzed for novel proteins, and the researchers found that children with autism spectrum disorder had a different expressed protein, the complement factor C3 protein.

An autistic child peers from between curtains.While the sample size in the study only consisted of 63 children, the researchers do hope that, in the future, this novel protein will provide a more accurate and quick diagnostic test for autism. The researchers more immediate goals will be to expand their research to increase validity, and, possibly, determine how early this test can be used to diagnose autism.

Yet, as any parent of an autistic child knows, screening for the disorder is only part of the battle. Researchers are also making headway in treating the disorder by taking very different approaches. First, researchers from Wellcome Trust analyzed how autistic children process information and determined the children have a greater ability to process information than normal children, and researchers from the Autism Center for Excellence at the University of San Diego have identified gene abnormalities in autistic children.

The study conducted by the Wellcome Trust is unique because it was not looking for deficiencies in autistic children but strengths. The deficiencies of autistic children are well known, but the researcher found that autistic children are able to process more information in a given set of time than normal children. More impressive, the autistic children seemed less affected by distracting information. The researchers hope that in understanding the strengths associated with autism, doctors, educators and parents can play to these strengths in helping autistic children succeed.

On a very different note, the researchers at the Autism Center for Excellence were not looking at how autistic children process information, nor did the researchers want to simply develop a behavioral treatment to help autistic children succeed. No, the researchers instead looked at the genes and biological mechanisms behind autism.

The researchers found that how autism is expressed changes throughout the life of the patient. When the patient is young, the genes responsible for cell growth regulation and organization are disrupted. This causes neuron overgrowth and disorganization in parts several parts of the child’s brain that are associated with the social and communicative deficiencies characterized by autism. As the child reaches adulthood, the researchers found a disruption in signaling pathways and the brains ability to repair itself.

This is one of the first studies that was able to monitor the consequences of abnormal gene expression in both children and adults with autism. The researchers hope that in understanding the genetic mechanisms behind the disorder, they will be able to develop better treatments and possibly a cure.

Though a cure might be a long way off, it is clear that there are many good scientists examining autism in many different manners, all with the hope of improving the quality of life of children diagnosed with autism.

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