What we know about autism by looking in the brain

On December 13, 2016, Dr. Matthew Anderson from Beth Isreal Deaconess Medical Center presented a 45 minute webinar on recent findings in autism thanks to studying the brains of people with autism.  It covers genetics, neuropathology and immunology.  It’s a great chance to hear a quick recap of findings from an Autism BrainNet node director.  Please click above to watch the 45 minute presentation and questions from the audience.   Most importantly, anyone can be a part of this important research by registering to learn more about the Autism BrainNet at www.takesbrains.org. 


 

Why is it so hard to look them in the eye?

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.

Unfortunate new risk discovered for people with autism and their siblings

In addition to risks of anxiety, ADHD, mood disorders and other psychiatric issues, people with autism (and their siblings) show increased risk of substance abuse issues.  This information comes from a large scandanavian registry study that included over 26,000 individuals with ASD.  On this week’s podcast I discuss what this means for people with autism and their family members.

Autism and Epilepsy – a brain tissue perspective

On October 14th, the Autism BrainNet hosted it’s first webinar around how brain tissue findings affect people with autism.  First, Shafali Jeste, MD, from UCLA explained what seizures were, how prevalent they were in people with autism, and what the risk factors for them were in ASD.  Next, David Menassa from Oxford University described recent findings in brain tissue which showed how glia cells, or the cells of the brain that support neurons, are affected in ASD and how epilepsy affects these changes.  The introduction of the webinar is missing but only for a few seconds.   Thank you to Drs. Jeste and Menassa for participating in such a great informational event and for everyone that registered.

Environment or genetics in autism symptomatology? How about both?

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!

New technologies to help people with autism

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.

What came first? Impaired social behaviors or something else that changes social behavior?

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.