Top 10 autism research stories of 2015

Take a look back at our most-read and shared autism research reports of the year ...

December 15, 2015

Our understanding of autism deepened and broadened in 2015, with scientific publications on an unprecedented number of advances and discoveries. They included the revelation of a previously unknown connection between the brain and the immune system and the reassuring results of the largest-ever comparison of autism rates among vaccinated versus unvaccinated children. At the same time, one of science’s first deep dives into the autism genome revealed that the condition’s genetic underpinnings are even more complex than previously thought.

What did our community think about these advances? To answer that question, here are our most-read and shared autism research stories of 2015:

#10 Autism and apraxia: The importance of screening for both
In June, researchers reported that this otherwise rare speech disorder affects nearly 65 percent of children who have autism. Their report, in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, emphasized the importance of screening for both conditions when evaluating a child for either one. Apraxia involves difficulty coordinating the muscles involved in speech production and warrants a specific type of therapy not otherwise part of an autism intervention program. 

#9 Study finds that half of all autism cases trace to rare gene-disabling mutations
In September, investigators reported that at least half the time, autism traces to one of roughly 200 gene-disabling mutations found in the child but neither parent. Many of these mutations completely destroy the function of genes crucial to early brain development, the researchers found. With further study, the new list of “high impact” autism risk genes may prove helpful for identifying and guiding treatment of autism’s many subtypes.

#8 Doctors, listen up! Parents can spot autism long before diagnosis
Lonnie Zwaigenbaum is one of the world’s leading experts on how to identify autism as early as possible. But this year, his research team found that physicians like himself would do well to listen to a more insightful group of experts – parents. Their report, in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, described how parents’ concerns at 12 months accurately predicted a later autism diagnosis.

#7 Large study on parental age and autism finds increased risk among children of teen moms
In June, we learned the results of the largest international study of parental age and autism risk. The surprise: high rates of autism among the children of teen moms. The study also confirmed earlier research showing that autism rates rise steadily with parental age after 40. “These results suggest that multiple mechanisms are contributing to the association between parental age and ASD risk,” the investigators concluded. They also emphasized that though parental age affects the risk for autism, the vast majority of children born to both older and teen parents will not be affected. Read more…

#6 ADHD symptoms can delay autism diagnosis for years
Writing in the journal Pediatrics, investigators reported that the symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can significantly delay the identification of autism. In the new study, children initially diagnosed with ADHD received their autism diagnosis an average of three years later than did children who had autism without ADHD. The finding is especially important give that more than half of all children affected by autism also have ADHD or some of its symptoms. Because early intervention can make a crucial difference for young children with autism, the authors urged careful evaluation for autism in children with symptoms of ADHD. 

#5 Largest-ever autism genome study finds most siblings have different autism risk genes
In January, the largest-ever autism genome study revealed that the condition’s genetic underpinnings are even more complex than previously thought: Even within a family, most affected siblings have different autism-linked genes. Led by geneticist Stephen Scherer, director of the Autism Speaks MSSNG project, the report made the cover of Nature MedicineRead more…

#4 Researchers urge greater attention to autism-related food issues
In July, a study of more than a hundred children ages 3 to 11 confirmed that those affected by autism have high rates of food aversions, or extremely selective eating. Their parents reported more mealtime behavior problems, higher spousal stress and significant limitations to what the family ate, compared to the parents of typically developing kids. The investigators called on physicians and therapists to give greater attention to autism-related eating issues. The good news: Autism-specific behavioral therapies have proven effective at broadening diets and improving mealtime for the whole family. 

#3 No MMR-autism link in large study of vaccinated versus unvaccinated kids
In April, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published the largest-ever study comparing autism rates among vaccinated versus unvaccinated children. The investigation – which followed more than 95,000 children – echoed previous research in finding no link between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. It included more than 15,000 unvaccinated children and nearly 2,000 children considered at high risk for autism because they were born into families already affected by the condition. Read more …

#2 Study links autism to epigenetic changes in dads’ sperm
Also in April, researchers reported an unusual abundance of “epigenetic” changes to the DNA of sperm from men whose young children had autism symptoms. Epigenetics involves the control of when and where a gene is active. Because epigenetic changes in sperm can be passed on to offspring, they may affect early brain development, the investigators proposed. As for what caused the epigenetic changes, the researchers note that they can accumulate in a man’s sperm-producing cells as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals, infections and other environmental hazards over a lifetime. This accumulation with age might help explain the high rates of autism seen among the children of older dads.

#1 Discovery of brain-immune system link could advance understanding of autism
In June, University of Virginia neuroscientists reported their discovery of a previously undetected system of lymph vessels in the membranes surrounding the brain. Their discovery dramatically changed scientific understanding of the connection between the brain and immune system and could advance understanding of inflammation’s role in neurological conditions such as autism.

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