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IMFAR Updates on Associated Medical Conditions

Posted by Nancy Jones, Ph.D., program director of the Autism Treatment Network and Autism Clinical Trials Network

Medical issues are an everyday concern for many individuals and families with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Developing practical approaches to address these issues is a priority. However, there is also much we still need to understand about these conditions such as: What specific problems are common in children in ASD and how can they best be identified? What contributes to the risk of having medical problems? What is the underlying biology of these problems and is it different in children with ASD? What are the best approaches to treat and manage these issues?

It’s gratifying to see interest and research on associated medical conditions grow in the years since the inception of the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). This year’s IMFAR featured these issues prominently. Here are some highlights:

* Interest in sleep research has increased in the last few years in large part due to the Sleep Special Interest Group (SIG), one of the first of these groups launched at the IMFAR meeting. Before the Sleep SIG started there were fewer sleep-related research abstracts at IMFAR. This year there were a number, as well as a scientific panel on sleep issues. SIG groups provide researchers an opportunity to share ideas in an informal workshop setting. This year the Sleep SIG, led by Beth Malow, M.D., of Vanderbilt University, and Amanda Richdale, Ph.D., of LaTrobe University, had its final meeting at IMFAR. As part of this culminating meeting, the group focused on developing the research ideas of young investigators who presented to the group. The young investigators also worked with the more senior researchers and clinicians to refine and develop new projects in this area. These research projects included the relationship between different methods for measuring sleep, the causes of nighttime and early morning wakings, and the genetics related to ASMT (an enzyme involved in the production of melatonin). In the scientific panel on sleep, Dr. Malow presented findings from her ongoing sleep treatment research with families participating in Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN). Her study focuses on training parents in behavioral approaches to manage their child’s sleep problems. (For more on Malow’s sleep research, check back for Angie Fedele’s upcoming science blog on ATN research presented at IMFAR.)

* Ann Neumeyer, M.D., medical director of the Lurie Center for Autism at Massachusetts General Hospital, presented the findings from a study of bone density in adolescent boys on the autism spectrum. Like Vanderbilt, Lurie Center is a member of the ATN. This study recruited families from the ATN's patient registry and was funded by the AIR-P grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration. Adolescents experience significant bone growth, so Neumeyer and her team wanted to measure the bone density in pre-teen and teenage boys with ASD. They looked at bone density’s relationship to factors such as intake of vitamin D and calcium, being on a restricted diet, and hormonal and stress factors. She found that pre-teen and teenage boys with ASD had decreased bone density in the hips and spine compared to those without ASD. The boys on the autism spectrum also tended to have lower levels of intake of vitamin D and calcium from food and supplements, as well as lower blood levels of these vitamins. She also found that, among boys with ASD, those on restricted diets had lower bone density than those who had non-restricted diets. Higher levels of exercise, in turn, were associated with greater bone density. These findings indicate that individuals with ASD are at risk of poor bone health. Moreover this risk is being seen during a critical time for bone growth. Neumeyer suggested further research on the mechanisms behind bone development and on the relationship of vitamin D intake with bone density and growth.

This year’s IMFAR included a scientific session and two poster sessions dedicated to medical and psychiatric challenges. The research presented focused on a range of issues including feeding issues and nutrition, sleep, GI conditions, body and head growth, nervous system disorders, epilepsy and anxiety. Abstracts from the sessions can be found on at the IMFAR 2012 Meeting webpage.

Editor’s note: Thanks to the support of our community, Autism Speaks is funding a number of studies on co-morbid medical conditions. You can explore these and other donor-supported research programs using our Grant Search engine.

The ATN/AIR-P research projects are part of on-going activities of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network, a funded program of Autism Speaks. They are supported by cooperative agreement UA3 MC 11054 through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Research Program to the Massachusetts General Hospital.