Each year Autism Speaks’ science staff and scientific advisory committee consider the hundreds of studies reported on during the year. From these, they select the ten advances in autism research they view as the most significant.
Here are Autism Speaks’ Top Ten Advances in Autism Research 2013:
In July, the first results from Autism Speaks “10K Autism Genomes Program” demonstrated the usefulness of whole genome sequencing for providing unprecedented guidance for the diagnosis and personalized treatment for autism and its associated medical conditions.
Researchers used high-tech eye tracking to discover a subtle but consistent decline in eye contact that begins around 2 months of age in babies who go on to develop autism. If confirmed, the finding would be the earliest biomarker of autism. It may also represent an opportunity for very early intervention that could improve the course of brain development, learning and social engagement.
In February, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a large study showing that autism rates are lower among the children of women who take folic acid supplements in the weeks before and after conception. The findings suggest a safe and practical step women can take to reduce autism risk. However, the benefit may turn out to be restricted to women with propensities to low folic acid levels.
In February, the results of the largest-ever genetic study of neurodevelopmental disorders and psychiatric illnesses revealed strong commonalities between autism and ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia. The shared genes included two that balance calcium levels in brain cells, suggesting a common direction for the development of new treatments.
In November, two research teams separately reported studies that help pinpoint specific periods in brain development when genetic mutations can converge to increase risk for autism. Their research uncovered surprising commonalities - showing, for example, that many autism-linked genes affect key areas in the same small handful of brain pathways. These findings suggest important new targets for future treatments.
In January, a landmark study confirmed that a small subset of children with autism entirely overcome their disabilities. Researchers documented that these children had significant autism symptoms when diagnosed and suggested that intensive early intervention and biological differences may have been crucial to their optimal outcomes.
By studying identical twins who differ in autism diagnosis or symptom severity, researchers found tell-tale clues showing how environmental influences may contribute to – or protect against – autism.
In August, investigators reported a set of discoveries that linked autism to disruptions in very long genes and the enzymes that untangle them. The researchers have launched a search for chemicals that prevent these important enzymes (topoisomerases) from doing their job. Their discovery may also help explain why autism risk is higher among the children of older parents.
In November, the results of a large study on a diverse group of children with autism confirmed that they experience high rates of gastrointestinal symptoms. The study went further to associate GI distress with more-severe autism symptoms including social withdrawal and irritability. The findings lend strong support to Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network guidelines urging doctors to look for and treat GI symptoms in children with autism.
Researchers using a well-known mouse model of autism found that a probiotic known to relieve gut inflammation also improved social behavior while reducing repetitive behaviors and signs of anxiety. The study added support to the idea that intestinal inflammation can worsen or even cause autism symptoms in people. And it opened the door to clinical trials that will administer the probiotic to children with autism and GI symptoms.
Date: December 18, 2013
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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