Important Recent Advances in Autism Research

Thursday, May 30, 2013 View Comments Autism Speaks

Geraldine Dawson works with the scientific community, stakeholders and science staff to shape, expand and communicate Autism Speaks’s scientific vision and strategy. Geraldine Dawson is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This blog was orginally posted here on the Katie Couric website

It has been an exciting year for autism research. Advances in the areas of early detection, medical treatments for autism and early intensive behavioral interventions offer hope for families. Here’s a look at some of the recent breakthroughs.

New research suggests that it may one day be possible to identify infants at risk for autism before the onset of observable symptoms.Researchers found distinctive differences in brain communication pathways in infants who went on to develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These differences appeared as early as 6 months and continued through 2 years of age. The researchers used a special type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), called diffusion tensor imaging, to record three-dimensional snapshots of brain development at 6, 12 and 24 months of age.

Infants who went on to develop autism showed differences in white-matter development compared to those who did not. White matter reflects the wiring in the brain that allows one part of the brain to communicate efficiently with another part and is important for complex behaviors such as language and social interaction. While it’s too early to tell whether some form of MRI could be used clinically to identify children at risk for ASD in early infancy, the findings could guide the development of better tools for predicting risk and perhaps for measuring whether an early intervention therapy is improving underlying brain biology. Further research is needed to understand what is causing these differences in early brain development which, in turn, could uncover targets for future treatments.

A recent clinical trial of patients with fragile X syndrome suggests that a drug called arbaclofen could become the first medicine to treat autism’s core symptoms of social-communication disability and repetitive behaviors. The study enrolled 63 children and adults with fragile X syndrome. Many but not all had the additional diagnosis of ASD (around one-third of individuals with fragile X also have ASD). When the investigators looked only at participants with severe social impairment, they found that arbaclofen produced significant reductions in social avoidance and overall improvement in social functioning. Current studies are examining the effects of arbaclofen on social behavior of individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

Researchers delivered compelling evidence this year that an intensive early intervention program for toddlers with autism not only improves social and communication skills, but also improves brain activity related to social responsiveness. The intervention, the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), adapts key techniques from Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) for toddlers, with an emphasis on interactive play between children and their therapists and parents. In this study, researchers examined brain activity of children who completed the randomized controlled trial of ESDM. In this trial, children who received ESDM were compared to another group of children who received treatment as usual in the community.

The investigators also performed the brain activity tests on a group of age-matched children without autism. Noninvasive electroencephalography (EEG) showed that the children in the ESDM group showed greater brain responses to social information compared to children in the community group. Children who received ESDM showed similar brain responses to the group of children without ASD. This more-typical pattern of brain activity was associated with improved social behavior including improved eye contact and social communication. By contrast, children in the community intervention group showed greater brain activity when viewing objects than faces. Previous research has shown that many children with autism have this unusual pattern of brain activity.

These are just few of the studies that show the progress we are making in detecting autism early and providing more effective treatments. For more information on these studies and a list of other exciting research advances that made Autism Speaks Top 10 Autism Research Achievements of 2012, visit www.autismspeaks.org.