Thursday, April 9, 2015

Advances in Autism Understanding & Diagnosis

April’s Autism Awareness Month has extra significance this year, thanks to breaking news from the world of autism research.  While a cure for autism remains elusive, these recent medical research discoveries do offer hope in terms of better autism diagnosis and understanding.

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is an array of closely-related disorders with a shared core of symptoms (such as learning delays, communication problems, and social interaction deficits). ASD affects one in every 88 children.

Putting autism diagnosis on speed dial


A recent scientific advance from Virginia Tech, reported in January of this year, promises to revolutionize how ASD is identified and diagnosed during childhood, with changes that mean earlier and faster diagnosis. The researchers have created a two-minute ASD brain-imaging test to aid in the diagnosis of children with ASD.

“Two minutes” would be life-changing for families going through ASD diagnosis of a child. Diagnosis today, which is extremely time-consuming and somewhat subject (relying on a clinical observation and judgment), would become lightning-fast and much more accurate with the new imaging test.

How it works: The test identifies perspective-tracking responses to determine whether a child has ASD.  The brain’s middle cingulate cortex response is tracked using an MRI test.  The analysis helps medical professionals identify differences in the response of a child with ASD compared to those of a child without the condition. As the tests show, a more subdued response indicates a more severe level of symptoms.

3-D diagnosis reveals the shape of autism


Also reported in January, researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia have been able to identify a uniqueness in the facial measures of children with autism by employing an advanced 3-dimensional imaging and statistical analysis technique.

Through these 3D facial measurements, scientists are able to noninvasively screen a small child for autism by using a system of cameras that, together, generate fully dimensional facial images. The scientists can then measure distances along the curvature of the face, identifying structural differences characteristic of those with ASD, while also gaining insight into possible genetic causes.

Using the 3D measurement procedure and statistical analysis, the researchers found three distinct subgroups of children with autism who shared a similar measurement pattern in facial features that aligned to similarities the subgroups had in the kinds and severity of autism.

Autism-Vaccine connection? Not likely


A 2014 report showed that a study by the Institute of Medicine, and followed up by a  RAND Corporation analysis, provided evidence that debunks – or at least minimizes – any cause-effect concerns regarding a link between vaccines and autism.

The researchers looked at the safety of the most common vaccines, including the hepatitis A and B, DTaP, influenza, MMR, rotavirus, meningococcal, chickenpox, pneumococcal, and poliovirus vaccines. Their conclusion: while serious side effects from the vaccines can happen, they are extremely rare. 

The vaccine sometimes associate with autism is the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.  Their conclusion: The MMR vaccine is not responsible for the recent rise in autism.

The latest discoveries on environment and genetic influences in autism


Several new studies tell us that environmental factors are more important than previously thought in understanding the causes of autism, and equally as important as genes.
  • In the largest study to date to look at how autism runs in families, researchers found that children with a brother or sister with autism are 10 times more likely to develop autism; 3 times if they have a half-brother or sister; and 2 if they have a cousin with autism. The estimates show that inheritability of autism to be 50%, with the other 50% explained by non-heritable or environmental factors.
  • Another study showed that prenatal exposure to air pollution increases autism risk.
  • In a third study on environmental influences on autism, scientists concluded that there appears to be a link between certain pesticides an an increased risk for autism.
  • In this study, researchers found that prenatal exposure to the chemicals thalidomide and valproic acid can be linked to an increased risk of autism.
To learn more about autism and ASD, see our two previous articles: Autism–A Growing Concern and The Latest on Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer


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