Autism, Autism Tests & Diagnosis, Science

A new study has developed an assessment process for behaviors in infants that are strong predictors of autism. The work, by Lonnie Zwaigenbaum and others at the Canadian Autism Intervention Research Network developed the Autism Observation Scale for Infants (AOSI).
The AOSI uses 18 specific risk markers for autism developed from retrospective studies, videotape analyses, case reports and the collective clinical experience of the research team. These markers can be rated reliably within a brief clinical assessment, and the observations made at 12 months can be used to help predict which children are at highest risk of autism.
“What this instrument shows us”, says Dr. Zwaigenbaum, “is that you can pick up on the first signs of autism at a very early age – and maybe starting treatment at this early stage of development will make the difference for these children.”
The text of the study isn’t available but these publications from Canadian Autism Intervention Research Network provide more detail: Specific behaviors seen in infants can predict autism, new research shows; Behavioural manifestations of autism in the first year of life

Autism, Current Affairs

An article in two parts (one, two) in the The Washington Times examines an interesting question of “are there any autistic Amish?”. The Amish , made famous in the Harrison Ford film Witness, are a reclusive religious group who eschew the trappings of modern life which includes vaccinations. If autism is a genetic condition then there should be over 100 Amish with autism in the community the article looks at. Yet the journalist can only find one and that is an adopted child from China. The article goes on to look at the role of mercury and thimerosal in vaccines. For more information see Mercury and Autism.

Autism, Science

Mirror Neurons, part of the brain which fires when we watch some else move, have been linked to autism because of their role in empathy. The University of California, San Diego, USA has been doing further research by monitoring brain waves of people with high-functioning autism. From the press release:

The EEG data was analyzed for mu rhythm suppression. Mu rhythm, a human brain-wave pattern, is suppressed or blocked when the brain is engaged in doing, seeing or imagining action, and correlates with the activity of the mirror neuron system. In most people, the mu wave is suppressed both in response to their own movement and to observing the movement of others.

Subjects were tested while they moved their own hands and while they watched videos of visual white noise (baseline), of bouncing balls (non-biologic motion) and of a moving hand.

As expected, mu wave suppression was recorded in the control subjects both when they moved and when they watched another human move. In other words, their mirror neuron systems acted normally. The mirror neurons of the subjects with autism spectrum disorders, however, responded anomalously – only to their own movement.

Previous coverage on
March 11, 2005 Mirror Neuron System and Autism

Autism, Autism and Mercury, Current Affairs, Science, Web/Tech

Generation Rescue are a non-profit organisation that highlights the link between autism and mercury poisoning.  Mercury is slightly toxic in its liquid state but highly toxic if inhaled or in various compounds. Its known to cause liver and brain damage.
Surprisingly mercury is used in vaccinations given to children mostly in a chemical called Thimerosal which acts as a preservative. A study on mice found that it did have an effect on development but a Danish study found no link between autism and Thimerosal. In fact autism rates increased after Thimerosal was banned,
Mercury is also released by coal firing power stations.  In a study published in Health and Place researchers found that "On average, for each 1000 lb of environmentally released mercury, there was a 43% increase in the rate of special education services and a 61% increase in the rate of autism."

Autism, Dyslexia, Science, Visual

It has often been noted that some aspects of dyslexia and autism are just different points on the same spectrum. This includes problems reading facial emotions and has even been suggested as an early diagnostic tool for autistic children.
A recent study [PDF of full text] in the Journal of Vision has been comparing how we recognise faces and how we read words. Myomancy has covered the question of how we read (The Psychology of Reading) before and the basic debate is do we recognise the word as a whole unit or do we identify the individual letters and work out what they spell? The same same question applies to the face; do we employ a holistic approach or do we identify individual features. The study examines the impact of crowding, e.g. how close the letters / features are together and it demonstrated that facial and word recognition skill worked in very similar ways. This may give us a reason why poor reading skills often go hand in hand with poor social skills.

Autism, Science

A new study in Current Biology has shown more evidence that certain aspects of autism are related to a deficit in the Mirror Neuron System. These cells in the frontal lobes are activate when we see someone perform an action and are thought to be an important part of how we learn by imitating others. They are also linked to empathy, e.g. feeling sad when we see someone else crying. A weakness in this neural system is consistent with the problems seen in many people with autistic spectrum disorders.
In the new study autistic and non-autistic children had their brain activity monitored whilst they watched some moving their fingers. The brain activity in the mirror system was noticeably lower in the autistic children that those without the problem.
An introduction to the Mirror Neural System and a round of current papers relating to them can be found here. This article in the new Scientist magazine gives more information.

Autism, Science is reporting on study of a cancer treatment that is having an unexpected effect on mental functions. Twenty three men were given a pair of cancer drugs that are known to reduce testosterone levels. After six months the men’s visual memory and number ability decreased and after a year there was a slight increase in verbal ability.
This is noteworthy because autism is more frequent in boys than girls and some even theories that autism is extreme maleness. Verbal ability is general stronger in girls and boys are generaly better at numeric tasks [abstract]. So a reduction in the male hormone testosterone increases a female mental trait and lowers a male trait it is consistent with a link between testosterone and autism.

Autism, Current Affairs, Television

"Autism Is A World" has been nominated in the documentary short subject category. It was directed by Academy Award winner Gerardine Wurzburg and writtern by Sue Rubin who is autistic herself and though was initially diagnosed as retarded she has gone on to thrive in college. Co-producer of the firm is Douglas Biklen the professor of cultural foundations of education, disability studies and teaching and leadership in Syracuse’s School of Education. He is a promoter of the technique known as facilitated communication.

Autism, Memory, Science

A study by NICHD Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism (CPEA) at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University has found that autistics recall letters using different parts of their brains than non-autistic people. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to measure the brain activity of 14 individuals with high functioning autism while they performed a simple memory task involving letters of the alphabet. The volunteers were shown a sequence of letters. After each letter, they were asked to name the letter that preceded it. In some cases, they were asked to name the letter that appeared two letters previously. The autism volunteers’ brain activation patterns were compared to a control group of people who did not have autism, but were of a similar age and I.Q. level. The scans revealed different brain activation patterns between the two groups. Compared to the control group, the volunteers with autism showed more activation in the right hemisphere, or half, of the brain, and less activation in the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere takes the lead in processing letters, words and sentences, whereas the right hemisphere plays a larger role in processing shapes and visual information.
Original press release.

Autism, Current Affairs, Science

The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), also know as the ‘Children of the 90s study’, have announced that they will be looking into the causes of autistic disorders. The ALSPAC study follows 14,000 children born between 1 April 1991 and 31 December 1992 and has so far led to the publication of 160 scientific papers.

The environmental research, led by Professor Jean Golding at the University of Bristol will investigate the association of ASD with immunisations, problems with delivery, maternal and infant infections, fetal exposure to toxins, and maternal diet. Whether other conditions, such as coeliac disease or digestive problems, play a role in the development of ASD will also be considered. The £400K study will be one of the largest investigations of environmental risk factors in ASD.

Links: ALSPAC Press Release, coverage on the BBC.