This week summarizes some new studies looking at autism traits and autism diagnosis in girls with anorexia nervosa. While the two disorders may seem different on the outset, they do share some behavioral features. Unfortunately, most studies look at autism in those with anorexia, not the other way around. However, what is known is that there is not only higher levels of ASD traits in girls with anorexia, about 10% of girls with anorexia also have an autism diagnosis. This number can only be trusted if you look at both standardized observation instruments AND parental report. Studies determining the rates of eating disorders in autism are desperately needed for better treatment of symptoms.
As always, good news and bad news in autism this week. First the good news: an intervention given between 9-14 months of age in children with a high probability of having an autism diagnosis improved autism symptoms at 3 years of age. Now the bad: mothers who experience severe childhood abuse are more likely to have a child with an autism diagnosis. Why? A new study explains it might have a lot to do with autism traits in the parents. We would love to hear your thoughts on the results, please provide them in the comment section.
Last week CNN.com reported on a study that showed slight improvement of autism symptoms in children that received a single infusion of their own umbilical cord blood. While the study was interesting, the authors were the first to acknowledge the limitations, however, this did not stop the media from misrepresenting the results. Details are explained in this podcast. In addition, a big win this week for precision or personalized medicine: different symptoms and different genetic mutations are linked to different outcomes from different anti-seizure medications.
On Thursday, March 30th the Autism Science Foundation held their 4th Annual Day of Learning in NYC. If you were not able to attend and can’t wait for the videos of the talks, this week’s podcast attempts to summarize what was presented.
A list of the talks are:
- Autism Research: Where Are We Now? – Dr. Wendy Chung (Simons Foundation)
- Housing Options for Adults with Autism – Amy Lutz (EASI Foundation)
- Improving Communication Between Parents of Children with Autism and Teachers – Dr. David Mandell (University of Pennsylvania)
- Developing Clinical Biomarkers – Dr. James McPartland – (Yale University)
- Understanding Modifiable Autism Risk Factors – Dr. Craig Newschaffer (Drexel University)
- Helping People with Autism Develop Practical Skills – Dr. Celine Saulnier (Emory University)
- New Technologies to Improve Autism Diagnosis – Dr. Robert Schultz (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia)
- Understanding the Female Protective Effect – Dr. Donna Werling (University of California, San Francisco)
David Mandell’s presentation on parent/teacher communication was based, in part, on this publication: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4676744/
…..may be overestimating the risk of drowning and suffocation in those with ASD. The study claims a higher rate of drowning and other accidental deaths in people with autism, which is true, but the magnitude of the effect they found was astronomical and misleading given the methodology. They counted people with autism off of information on their death certificate. Not everyone with autism has this code listed on their death certificate – so likely this number is underestimated and the risk of drowning overestimated. The shocking results call for things like swimming lessons in those with autism and other drastic safety measures. People with autism ARE at a higher risk of drowning and we should all pay attention. Ways to prevent accidental death in people with autism are needed and the overall message should be the same. But the numbers themselves are probably a little off.
Last week, another Baby Siblings Research Consortium Project (BSRC) published an intriguing finding which also has the bonus of being a replication. Mark Shen, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found higher levels of extra axial fluid in the brains of infants who went on to later be diagnosed with autism, and even higher levels in those with severe autism symptoms. Extra-axial fluid is also called cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that holds the brain steady in your head. Other functions of extra-axial fluid and what this means on how it may contribute to autism risk are described in the podcast. He not only explains the findings, but conveys what families should know about them and how they can help with early identification of ASD.
On March 13th, Dr. Mark Zylka from UNC gave a 60 minute overview of how researchers are using autism-relevant genetic mutations in cells to start to understand the interactions between genetics and thousands of environmental factors on gene expression. He pointed out the convergence of pathways in how genes and these environmental factors worked in the brain, and they included: neuroinflammation, early brain development, turning neurons on and off, and cell signaling. Dr. Valerie Hu from George Washington University commented on the important impact of these results and perspective from her lab studying epigenetically modified genes, like RORA, which also may be sensitive to common chemicals found in our environment. The entire webinar, including the questions that they were able to answer from participants, is found here.
On Monday, the much anticipated MSSNG study which analyzed the entire DNA sequence of over 5000 people with autism was published. The press release can be found here. In it, the researchers found even more genes of interest to autism. Also, those with more of a specific type of mutation, copy number variations, had worse autism symptoms. But of course, the story gets more complicated than just more mutations – worse behavior. An analysis from a different group of individuals reinforced the role of copy number variations in symptoms, but when they matched the groups according to IQ, the autism symptom profiles were different. This shows that adaptive behavior and IQ are important to consider when considering how genetics influence autism symptoms. Finally, another study shows how important measuring genetics is to understanding environmental factors associated with autism. Michela Traglia reports that increases in PBDEs in moms of kids affected with autism can be explained by mutations in the gene that breaks down these chemicals. It’s important to study genetics of autism, but also crucial to know the genetics of the entire family as well.
The brain is developing even after birth. So interventions that are given very early have the best chance of remolding and rewiring a brain with autism to prevent autism related disabilities. This week, a group from the University of London, Duke University and University of Washington measured brain activity during tasks that required social attention following 2 months of very very very early intervention. They found that the way the brain responded to social stimuli was more like those without an autism diagnosis. This study shows a biological marker of brain function is altered after behavioral interventions that are intended to do just that – change the way the brain functions.
Last month, UC Davis researcher Cyndi Schumann used resources for the Autism BrainNet to look at what causes differences in the rates of diagnosis between males and females. Consistent with other studies on this topic, males and females don’t show differences in the rates of autism genes, but rather in the way that the brain controls other genes that code for things like neuroinflammation and development. Clearly more studies are necessary but it is consistent with the Female Protective Effect in autism. The full text can be found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5294827/
And also, there was a study on genital herpes and autism that CNN got totally wrong.