There is an ongoing debate about why people with autism avoid eye contact. There is data to support both, but as this behavior emerges very early, it’s important to look at data from preverbal children to understand the origins of changes in eye contact. Many scientists also feel that avoiding eye contact snowballs over the lifespan and deprives people with autism from developing social skills. Infants don’t even know why they avoid eye contact so at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, researchers are using eye tracking technology to answer this question. The findings have clear implications for early intervention strategies.
Biomarkers can help distinguish different types of features but this week they were used to predict who would respond to Pivotal Response Training, or PRT. Researchers, led by Pam Ventral at Yale looked at how the brain responded to a social or non social situation as well as baseline features on standardized measures. Remarkably, these brain signatures were better at standard behavioral assessments at determining who would respond most positively to PRT. This study has enormous implications for personalized medicine approach and demonstrates how early studies in biomarkers many years ago have paid off for those with autism.
Overall, the scientific research examining the efficacy of oxytocin treatment in autism spectrum disorder has been mixed. On a previous podcast, studies in the way the oxytocin receptor was turned on and off were explained which may account for variability in treatment response. This week, two studies in Japan show that specific mutations in the oxytocin receptor product predict who will respond to oxytocin treatment and who will not. Therefore, the oxytocin story is one of the first examples of using genetic findings to push better treatment on an individual level, otherwise known as precision medicine.
Hear what you missed if you were unable to attend the Seaver Autism Conference on September 25th! Dr. David Skuse discusses “where are all the girls with autism”, summarizing evidence that some girls with high verbal IQ and autism might be missed, suggesting genes associated with high IQ may be protective against a diagnosis until adolescence. Also, ASF grantee Dr. Jennifer Foss-Feig describes how biomarkers can be used to improve personalized medicine. Finally, a summary and review of the new air pollution systematic review and meta analysis. Limited evidence does not equal none, and air pollution is a real problem. Here is a link to the paper: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0161851. All in 12 minutes.
This week I am in Minneapolis at an incredibly important meeting of Medical Examiners to pitch them the importance of collecting brain tissue for Autism BrainNet. While I was here I noticed a new study on the blogs that is important for families to hear about. It focused on a known environmental exposure in established genetic groups. The authors of the study, led by Dr. Sara Webb at University of Washington, showed that an environmental exposure can modify symptoms in genetically susceptible narrow subgroups. This is the sort of research that will better describe how environmental exposures are affecting autism risk. Thank you to Dr. Sara Webb for your perspectives and interpretation of the data!
On request, ASF summer intern Evan Suzman produced this week’s podcast on new technology and how it is being used for good in people with autism. He looks at Google Glass, wearable biomonitoring devices and a video game that can help teach social skills. These new technologies can complement those like the iPad which are already in wide use. This was a topic that many listeners wanted to hear more about. Some of the technology is still experimental, but promising.
This week is a more philosophical, ideological discussion of the origins of social behaviors inspired by review articles written by Mayada Elsabbagh at McGill University and Boaz Barak and Guoping Feng at MIT. The focus of these papers are: when social behaviors emerge, and what brain regions are responsible for their existence. While Dr. Elsabbagh thinks of the question in terms of when behaviors and symptoms emerge in infancy, Drs. Barak and Feng consider the issue by comparing autism to Williams Syndrome. Williams Syndrome is very similar to autism except people with WS are hyper social and empathetic and sometimes gregarious. One tiny change on one area of one gene makes all the difference. This podcast doesn’t settle the question, but hopefully shows you listeners why there is a debate and how it is important for people with autism.