1. Neuroimaging technique may help predict autism among high-risk infants

    June 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development press release:

    Functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) may predict which high-risk, 6-month old infants will develop autism spectrum disorder by age 2 years, according to a study funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), two components of the National Institutes of Health. The study is published in the June 7, 2017, issue of Science Translational Medicine.

    Autism affects roughly 1 out of every 68 children in the United States. Siblings of children diagnosed with autism are at higher risk of developing the disorder. Although early diagnosis and intervention can help improve outcomes for children with autism, there currently is no method to diagnose the disease before children show symptoms.

    “Previous findings suggest that brain-related changes occur in autism before behavioral symptoms emerge,” said Diana Bianchi, M.D., NICHD Director. “If future studies confirm these results, detecting brain differences may enable physicians to diagnose and treat autism earlier than they do today.”

    In the current study, a research team led by NIH-funded investigators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis focused on the brain’s functional connectivity — how regions of the brain work together during different tasks and during rest. Using fcMRI, the researchers scanned 59 high-risk, 6-month-old infants while they slept naturally. The children were deemed high-risk because they have older siblings with autism. At age 2 years, 11 of the 59 infants in this group were diagnosed with autism.

    The researchers used a computer-based technology called machine learning, which trains itself to look for differences that can separate the neuroimaging results into two groups — autism or non-autism — and predict future diagnoses. One analysis predicted each infant’s future diagnosis by using the other 58 infants’ data to train the computer program. This method identified 82 percent of the infants who would go on to have autism (9 out of 11), and it correctly identified all of the infants who did not develop autism. In another analysis that tested how well the results could apply to other cases, the computer program predicted diagnoses for groups of 10 infants, at an accuracy rate of 93 percent.

    “Although the findings are early-stage, the study suggests that in the future, neuroimaging may be a useful tool to diagnose autism or help health care providers evaluate a child’s risk of developing the disorder,” said Joshua Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., NIMH Director.

    Overall, the team found 974 functional connections in the brains of 6-month-olds that were associated with autism-related behaviors. The authors propose that a single neuroimaging scan may accurately predict autism among high-risk infants, but caution that the findings need to be replicated in a larger group.


  2. Genes influence ability to read a person’s mind from their eyes

    June 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge press release:

    Our DNA influences our ability to read a person’s thoughts and emotions from looking at their eyes, suggests a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

    Twenty years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed a test of ‘cognitive empathy‘ called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test (or the Eyes Test, for short). This revealed that people can rapidly interpret what another person is thinking or feeling from looking at their eyes alone. It also showed that some of us are better at this than others, and that women on average score better on this test than men.

    Now, the same team, working with the genetics company 23andMe along with scientists from France, Australia and the Netherlands, report results from a new study of performance on this test in 89,000 people across the world. The majority of these were 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research. The results confirmed that women on average do indeed score better on this test.

    More importantly, the team confirmed that our genes influence performance on the Eyes Test, and went further to identify genetic variants on chromosome 3 in women that are associated with their ability to “read the mind in the eyes.”

    The study was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professors Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur.

    Interestingly, performance on the Eyes Test in males was not associated with genes in this particular region of chromosome 3. The team also found the same pattern of results in an independent cohort of almost 1,500 people who were part of the Brisbane Longitudinal Twin Study, suggesting the genetic association in females is a reliable finding.

    The closest genes in this tiny stretch of chromosome 3 include LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Neuronal 1) which is highly active in a part of the human brain called the striatum, and which has been shown using brain scanning to play a role in cognitive empathy. Consistent with this, genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the volume of the striatum in humans, a finding that needs to be investigated further.

    Previous studies have found that people with autism and anorexia tend to score lower on the Eyes Test. The team found that genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the risk for anorexia, but not autism. They speculate that this may be because autism involves both social and non-social traits, and this test only measures a social trait.

    Varun Warrier says: “This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world. This is also the first study to attempt to correlate performance on this test with variation in the human genome. This is an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience and adds one more piece to the puzzle of what may cause variation in cognitive empathy.”

    Professor Bourgeron adds: “This new study demonstrates that empathy is partly genetic, but we should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience.”

    Professor Baron-Cohen says: “We are excited by this new discovery, and are now testing if the results replicate, and exploring precisely what these genetic variants do in the brain, to give rise to individual differences in cognitive empathy. This new study takes us one step closer in understanding such variation in the population.”


  3. Predicting autism: Study links infant brain connections to diagnoses at age two

    by Ashley

    From the University of North Carolina Health Care System press release:

    For the first time, autism researchers used MRIs of six-month olds to show how brain regions are connected and synchronized, and then predict which babies at high risk of developing autism would be diagnosed with the condition at age two. A previous UNC-lead study, published in Nature in February, used MRIs to determine differences in brain anatomy that predict which babies would develop autism as toddlers.

    Published in Science Translational Medicine, this paper describes a second type of brain biomarker that researchers and potentially clinicians could use as part of a diagnostic toolkit to help identify children as early as possible, before autism symptoms even appear.

    “The Nature paper focused on measuring anatomy at two time points (six and 12 months), but this new paper focused on how brain regions are synchronized with each other at one time point (six months) to predict at an even younger age which babies would develop autism as toddlers.” said senior author Joseph Piven, MD, the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine, and director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. “The more we understand about the brain before symptoms appear, the better prepared we will be to help children and their families.”

    Co-senior author John R. Pruett Jr., MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said, “There are no behavioral features to help us identify autism prior to the development of symptoms, which emerge during the second year of life. But early intervention improves outcomes, so if in the future we could use MRI to identify children at ultra-high risk before they develop symptoms, we could begin treatments sooner.”

    During the study, sleeping infants were placed in an MRI machine and scanned for about 15 minutes to view neural activity across 230 different brain regions. The researchers analyzed how various brain regions were synchronized with each other. This synchrony reflects the coordinated activity of brain regions, which is crucial for cognition, memory, and behavior, and may be observed during sleep.

    The researchers then focused on brain region connections related to the core features of autism: language skills, repetitive behaviors, and social behavior. For instance, the researchers determined which brain regions — synchronized at six months — were related to behaviors at age two. This helped Piven’s co-investigators create a machine learning classifier — a computer program — to sort through the differences in synchronization among those key brain regions. Once the computer learned these different patterns, the researchers applied the machine learning classifier to a separate set of infants.

    This part of the study included 59 babies enrolled at four sites, including the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at UNC-Chapel Hill, Washington University in St. Louis, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the University of Washington in Seattle. Each baby had an older sibling with autism, which means each baby had about a one-in-five chance of developing autism, as opposed to one in 68, which is the approximate risk among the general population. Eleven of the 59 babies went on to develop autism.

    The machine learning classifier was able to separate findings into two main groups: MRI data from children who developed autism and MRI data from those who did not. Using only this information, the computer program correctly predicted 81 percent of babies who would later meet the criteria for autism at two years of age.

    Robert Emerson, PhD, a former UNC postdoctoral fellow and first author of the study, said, “When the classifier determined a child had autism, it was always right. But it missed two children. They developed autism but the computer program did not predict it correctly, according to the data we obtained at six months of age.”

    Emerson added, “No one has done this kind of study in six-month olds before, and so it needs to be replicated. We hope to conduct a larger study soon with different study participants.”

    This marks the fourth autism imaging study UNC researchers led or co-led this year. Along with the Nature paper, UNC researchers and collaborators published a study in Biological Psychiatry in March linking increased cerebrospinal fluid surrounding to autism diagnoses. In February, they published a paper in Cerebral Cortex about the brain network functional connections involved in social behavior deficits in children with autism.

    “I think the most exciting work is yet to come, when instead of using one piece of information to make these predictions, we use all the information together,” Emerson said. “I think that will be the future of using biological diagnostics for autism during infancy.”


  4. Exposure to specific toxins and nutrients during late pregnancy and early life correlate with autism risk

    June 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the The Mount Sinai Hospital / Mount Sinai School of Medicine press release:

    Using evidence found in baby teeth, researchers from The Senator Frank R. Lautenberg Environmental Health Sciences Laboratory and The Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at Mount Sinai found that differences in the uptake of multiple toxic and essential elements over the second and third trimesters and early postnatal periods are associated with the risk of developing autism spectrum disorders (ASD), according to a study published June 1 in the journal Nature Communications.

    The critical developmental windows for the observed discrepancies varied for each element, suggesting that systemic dysregulation of environmental pollutants and dietary elements may serve an important role in ASD. In addition to identifying specific environmental factors that influence risk, the study also pinpointed developmental time periods when elemental dysregulation poses the biggest risk for autism later in life.

    According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ASD occurs in 1 of every 68 children in the United States. The exact causes are unknown, but previous research indicates that both environmental and genetic causes are likely involved. While the genetic component has been intensively studied, specific environmental factors and the stages of life when such exposures may have the biggest impact on the risk of developing autism are poorly understood. Previous research indicates that fetal and early childhood exposure to toxic metals and deficiencies of nutritional elements are linked with several adverse developmental outcomes, including intellectual disability and language, attentional, and behavioral problems.

    “We found significant divergences in metal uptake between ASD-affected children and their healthy siblings, but only during discrete developmental periods,” said Manish Arora, PhD, BDS, MPH, Director of Exposure Biology at the Senator Frank Lautenberg Environmental Health Sciences Laboratory at Mount Sinai and Vice Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Specifically, the siblings with ASD had higher uptake of the neurotoxin lead, and reduced uptake of the essential elements manganese and zinc, during late pregnancy and the first few months after birth, as evidenced through analysis of their baby teeth. Furthermore, metal levels at three months after birth were shown to be predictive of the severity of ASD eight to ten years later in life.”

    To determine the effects that the timing, amount, and subsequent absorption of toxins and nutrients have on ASD, Mount Sinai researchers used validated tooth-matrix biomarkers to analyze baby teeth collected from pairs of identical and non-identical twins, of which at least one had a diagnosis of ASD. They also analyzed teeth from pairs of normally developing twins that served as the study control group. During fetal and childhood development, a new tooth layer is formed every week or so, leaving an “imprint” of the micro chemical composition from each unique layer, which provides a chronological record of exposure. The team at the Lautenberg Laboratory used lasers to reconstruct these past exposures along incremental markings, similar to using growth rings on a tree to determine the tree’s growth history.

    “Our data shows a potential pathway for interplay between genes and the environment,” says Abraham Reichenberg, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Our findings underscore the importance of a collaborative effort between geneticists and environmental researchers for future investigations into the relationship between metal exposure and ASD to help us uncover the root causes of autism, and support the development of effective interventions and therapies.”

    Additional studies are needed to determine whether the discrepancies in the amount of certain metals and nutrients are due to differences in how much a fetus or child is exposed to them or because of a genetic difference in how a child takes in, processes, and breaks down these metals and nutrients.


  5. Researchers closer to cracking neural code of love

    June 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Emory Health Sciences press release:

    A team of neuroscientists from Emory University’s Silvio O. Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition has discovered a key connection between areas of the adult female prairie vole’s brain reward system that promotes the emergence of pair bonds. Results from this study, could help efforts to improve social abilities in human disorders with impaired social function, such as autism. In addition to the online posting, the study is expected to be in the June 8 printed edition of Nature.

    This Conte Center study is the first to find the strength of communication between parts of a corticostriatal circuit in the brain predicts how quickly each female prairie vole becomes affiliative with her partner; prairie voles are socially monogamous and form lifelong bonds with their partners. Additionally, when researchers boosted the communication by using light pulses, the females increased their affiliation toward males, thus further demonstrating the importance of this circuit’s activity to pair bonding in prairie voles.

    “Prairie voles were critical to our team’s findings because studying pair bonding in humans has been traditionally difficult,” says Dr. Elizabeth Amadei, a co-lead author on the research. “As humans, we know the feelings we get when we view images of our romantic partners, but, until now, we haven’t known how the brain’s reward system works to lead to those feelings and to the voles’ pair bonding.”

    Building upon previous work in prairie voles that demonstrated brain chemicals, such as oxytocin and dopamine, act within the medial prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens to establish a pair bond, the team set out to address finding the precise neural activity leading to a pair bond. The researchers used probes to listen to neural communication between these two brain regions and then analyzed activity from individual female prairie voles as they spent hours socializing with a male — a cohabitation period that normally leads to a pair bond.

    The team discovered that during pair bond formation, the prefrontal cortex, an area involved in decision-making, helps control the rhythmic oscillations of neurons within the nucleus accumbens, the central hub of the brain’s reward system. This suggests a functional connection from the cortex shapes neurons activity in the nucleus accumbens.

    The team then noticed individual voles varied in the strength of this functional connectivity. Importantly, each subject with stronger connectivity showed more rapid affiliative behavior with her partner, measured as side-by-side huddling contact. Furthermore, the pair’s first mating, a behavior that accelerates bonding in voles, strengthened this functional connection, and the amount of strengthening correlated with how quickly the animals subsequently huddled.

    According to Larry Young, PhD, co-author and director of the Conte Center, “It is remarkable there are neural signatures of a predisposition to begin huddling with the partner. Similar variation in corticostriatal communication could underlie individual differences in social competencies in psychiatric disorders in humans, and enhancing that communication could improve social function in disorders such as autism.” Young is also chief of the Division of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

    The study results led the team to ask more questions, including whether communication between the prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens not only correlates with huddling but also causally facilitates it. To answer this, the researchers used optogenetics, a technique that allowed them to enhance communication between the brain areas using light, and enhanced communication between the prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens of female voles during a brief cohabitation without mating, which is not conducive to pair bonding. The team discovered optogenetically stimulated animals showed greater preference toward partners compared to a stranger male when given a choice the following day. “It is amazing to think we could influence social bonding by stimulating this brain circuit with a remotely controlled light implanted into the brain,” says Zack Johnson, PhD, co-lead author.

    The study results identify an important reward circuit in the brain that is activated during social interactions to facilitate bond formation in voles. “Now, we want to know if oxytocin regulates functional connectivity and how circuit activity changes the way the brain processes social information about a partner,” says senior author Robert Liu, PhD, associate professor in Emory’s Department of Biology. “Our team’s work is an example of a larger effort in neuroscience to better quantify how brain circuits function during natural social behaviors. Our goal is to promote better neural communication to boost social cognition in disorders such as autism, in which social functioning can be impaired,” Liu continues.


  6. Brain anatomy differs in people with 22q genetic risk for schizophrenia, autism

    June 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – Los Angeles press release:

    A UCLA study characterizes, for the first time, brain differences between people with a specific genetic risk for schizophrenia and those at risk for autism, and the findings could help explain the biological underpinnings of these neuropsychiatric disorders.

    The research, published May 23 in the Journal of Neuroscience, sheds light on how an excess, or absence, of genetic material on a particular chromosome affects neural development.

    “Notably, the opposing anatomical patterns we observed were most prominent in brain regions important for social functioning,” said Carrie Bearden, lead author of the study and a professor of clinical psychology at UCLA. “These findings provide clues into differences in brain development that may predispose to schizophrenia or autism.”

    Bearden’s earlier research had focused on children with abnormalities caused by missing sections of genetic material on chromosome 22, in a location known as 22q11.2. The disorder, called 22q11.2-deletion syndrome, can cause developmental delays, heart defects and distinct facial features. It also confers the highest-known genetic risk for schizophrenia.

    Then she learned that people with 22q duplication — abnormal repetition, or duplication, of genetic material in chromosome 22 — had learning delays and sometimes autism, but a lower risk for schizophrenia than that found in the general population. In other words, duplication of genetic material in this region seemed to provide some protection against schizophrenia.

    For the current study, Bearden, who is part of the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, conducted MRI scans of 143 study participants: 66 with 22q deletions, 21 with 22q duplications, and 56 without the genetic mutation.

    Those in the group with 22q deletion, which carries the risk for schizophrenia, had thicker gray matter, but less brain surface area — a measure which relates to how folded the brain is — compared to those in the duplication group. The people in the 22q duplication group, who at risk for autism, had the opposite pattern, with thinner gray matter and larger brain surface area.

    “The next question is how does brain anatomy — and brain function — relate to psychiatric outcomes? These findings provide a snapshot,” Bearden said. “We are now conducting follow-up studies to track predictors of outcome over time. Those are the puzzle pieces that are next on our list to disentangle.”

    These structures are not sole determinants of schizophrenia or autism, Bearden said, but rather, more dots in the connect-the-dots puzzle of understanding these disorders. Observing this group of people over time could provide insights on how other risk factors or life events, such as puberty, affect the mind.

    Bearden says she and her team are collaborating with other scientists to investigate brain structural differences in animal models, to find out what causes them at the cellular level.


  7. Oxytocin administered to the nose increases emotion perception in autism

    June 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Oslo, Faculty of Medicine press release:

    A recent study has demonstrated that intranasal oxytocin can influence how individuals with autism perceive emotion in others. This is an important first step for a potential pharmacological treatment of autism.

    Autism is characterized by difficulties in social functioning. Individuals with autism are generally less sensitive to social information, which can influence their interactions with others as they may overlook social cues. Research has shown that the neuropeptide oxytocin, known to be involved in childbirth and mother-child bonding, also has the potential to improve social information processing in youth with autism.

    In a recent study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, 17 adult men with autism were given a low dose of intranasal oxytocin, a higher dose of intranasal oxytocin, or a placebo over three separate visits. A novel nasal spray device developed by OptiNose AS, which is designed to improve nose-to-brain molecule delivery, was used to deliver the treatment. After each spray administration, the participants were asked about the emotional intensity of a series of facial images.

    Consistent with past research in healthy adults, the researchers found evidence for social effects after the lower dose, and not the higher dose that is often used in treatment trials. Specifically, compared to placebo spray, study participants rated faces as happier after the low dose oxytocin spray.

    “These results suggest that intranasal oxytocin can influence how individuals with autism perceive emotion in others,” says professor Ole A. Andreassen, senior author of the study and a professor at the Norwegian Centre for Mental Disorders Research (NORMENT) at the University of Oslo.

    “Current behavioral treatment options addressing social dysfunction in autism are extremely resource intensive, so this research is an important first step for a potential pharmacological treatment.”

    First author Daniel S. Quintana explains: “Here we used a novel nasal spray device, and tested two doses of oxytocin. These results provide a better understanding of how to administer oxytocin efficiently, and which dose may be more effective. This will aid future clinical studies of this promising treatment for social dysfunction.”


  8. Facial expressions: How brains process emotion

    May 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the California Institute of Technology press release:

    Have you ever thought someone was angry at you, but it turned out you were just misreading their facial expression? Caltech researchers have now discovered that one specific region of the brain, called the amygdala, is involved in making these (sometimes inaccurate) judgments about ambiguous or intense emotions. Identifying the amygdala’s role in social cognition suggests insights into the neurological mechanisms behind autism and anxiety.

    The research was done in the laboratories of Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology, and collaborator Ueli Rutishauser (PhD ’08) of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and a visiting associate in biology and biological engineering at Caltech. It appears in the April 21 issue of Nature Communications.

    “We have long known that the amygdala is important in processing emotion from faces,” says Adolphs. “But now we are starting to understand that it incorporates a lot of complex information to make fairly sophisticated decisions that culminate in our judgments.”

    When looking at a face, brain cells in the amygdala fire electrical impulses or “spikes” in response. However, the role of such face cells in social cognition remains unclear. Adolphs and his group measured the activity of these cells, or neurons, in patients while they were shown images of faces expressing different degrees of happiness or fear. The subjects were also shown images of faces with more ambiguous or neutral emotions, such as moderate displeasure or muted happiness. For each type of image, subjects were asked to decide whether the face looked fearful or happy. The researchers then investigated how neurons reacted to different aspects of emotions, and how the activity of the face cells related to the decision made by the subjects.

    The researchers found that there are two groups of neurons in the amygdala that respond to facial emotions.

    One group, the emotion-tracking neurons, detects the intensity of a single specific emotion, such as happiness or fear. For example, a happiness-signaling neuron would fire more spikes if the emotion was extreme happiness, and fewer spikes if the emotion was mild happiness. Separate groups of neurons within the emotion-tracking neurons code specifically for fear or for happiness.

    The other group, the ambiguity-coding neurons, indicates the ambiguity of the perceived emotion, irrespective of the nature of that emotion.

    Showing patients images of emotionally ambiguous faces was the key to understanding how the specialized neurons in the amygdala contribute to decision making, the researchers say. The faces were so ambiguous that a patient would sometimes judge the same image to be fearful at times and happy at other times. The emotion-coding neurons indicated the subjective decision the patient made about the face.

    “Most people are familiar with feeling that a face just looks too ambiguous to really decide what emotion the person is having,” says first author and visitor in neuroscience Shuo Wang (PhD ’14). “The fact that amygdala neurons signal a decision made about a face, such as which emotion it shows, gives us important insight because it shows that the amygdala is involved in making decisions rather than simply representing sensory input.”

    In addition to recording single cells from the amygdala, the researchers also carried out a neuroimaging study using fMRI (in a separate group of participants), and additionally studied the emotion judgments of three rare subjects with lesions of the amygdala. The lesion subjects showed an abnormally low threshold for deciding when a face was fearful, and the fMRI study also showed the specific effect of emotion intensity and ambiguity in the amygdala. The study is the first to combine so many different sources of data.

    These findings also suggest a mechanistic basis for potential treatments involving the painless electrical stimulation of the amygdala, which are currently being studied in ongoing clinical trials. “Researchers at multiple institutions are currently evaluating whether deep-brain stimulation of the amygdala is effective in treating severe cases of autism or post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Rutishauser. “Patients with severe PTSD are thought to have a hyperactive amygdala, which electrical stimulation might be able to inhibit. Our findings that amygdala neurons carry signals about the subjective percept of emotions indicates a more specific reason for why such electrical stimulation might be beneficial.”


  9. Speech and language deficits in children with autism may not cause tantrums

    by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Speech or language impairments may not be the cause of more frequent tantrums in children with autism, according to Penn State College of Medicine researchers. The findings could help parents of children with autism seek out the best treatment for behavior problems.

    Children with autism experience more tantrums than children without, according to the researchers, and speech therapists, preschool teachers, parents and others often blame these frequent outbursts on speech and language problems. Some children with autism spectrum disorder are not able to speak or have speech that is not clear or well-understood by others.

    To investigate this correlation, the researchers studied the relationship between language and tantrum frequency in 240 children with autism between the ages of 15 and 71 months of age. The researchers, who published their results in a recent issue of the Journal of Development and Physical Disabilities, said that the children’s IQ, their ability to understand language and their ability to use words and speak clearly, explained less than 3 percent of their tantrums.

    “We had children in our sample with clear speech and enough intelligence to be able to communicate, and their tantrums were just as high in that group,” said Cheryl D. Tierney, associate professor of pediatrics, College of Medicine, and section chief, behavior and developmental pediatrics, Penn State Children’s Hospital.

    The researchers also found that children who spoke at the level of a 2-year-old with normal development had more tantrums than children with lower speech skills.

    “There is a common pervasive misbelief that children with autism have more tantrum behaviors because they have difficulty communicating their wants and their needs to caregivers and other adults,” Tierney explained. “The belief is that their inability to express themselves with speech and language is the driving force for these behaviors, and that if we can improve their speech and their language the behaviors will get better on their own. But we found that only a very tiny percentage of temper tantrums are caused by having the inability to communicate well with others or an inability to be understood by others.”

    In the study, Tierney and co-investigator Susan D. Mayes, professor of psychiatry, addressed the limitations in previous research by including a larger sample of children and capturing more measurements. They add that their study is unique because it measures IQ and it separates speech and language as different variables that might affect tantrum behavior in children with autism.

    “IQ is extremely important because a child that has the mental capacity to understand and use language may display different behaviors compared to a child who doesn’t have the mental capacity and comprehension to use language,” Tierney said.

    She also explained the difference between language and speech in the study of children with autism.

    “Language is a child’s ability to understand the purpose of words and to understand what is said,” she said. “Speech is their ability to use their mouth, tongue, lips and jaw to form the sounds of words and make those sounds intelligible to other people.”

    The study doesn’t answer the question of what causes tantrums in children with autism, but mood dysregulation and a low tolerance for frustration — two common traits — are likely factors that should be studied further, Tierney said.

    Tierney suggests enough evidence has accumulated to shift the emphasis from improving speech to improving behavior.

    “We should stop telling parents of children with autism that their child’s behavior will get better once they start talking or their language improves, because we now have enough studies to show that that is unlikely to happen without additional help,” she said.

    That help should come in the form of applied behavior analysis, and having a well-trained and certified behavior analyst on a child’s treatment team is key to improved outcomes, Tierney added.

    “This form of therapy can help children with autism become more flexible and can show them how to get their needs met when they use behaviors that are more socially acceptable than having a tantrum,” Tierney said.


  10. Study looks at influence of paternal age at conception on social development in offspring

    May 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Elsevier press release:

    The age of the father at the time his children are born may influence their social development, suggests a study published in the May 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP). Analyzing social behaviors of children from early childhood until adolescence, researchers found that those whose father was either very young or older at conception differed in how they acquired social skills. These findings may offer insights into how paternal age influences children’s risk of autism and schizophrenia, which was shown in earlier studies.

    “Our study suggests that social skills are a key domain affected by paternal age. What was interesting is that the development of those skills was altered in the offspring of both older as well as very young fathers,” said Magdalena Janecka, PhD, a fellow at the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at Mount Sinai. “In extreme cases, these effects may contribute to clinical disorders. Our study, however, suggests that they could also be much more subtle.”

    Dr. Janecka and her co-authors used a UK-based sample of more than 15,000 twins who were followed between the ages of 4 and 16. To find out whether children’s social skills were affected by how old their father was when they were born, the team looked for differences in the developmental patterns of social skills, as well as other behaviors, including conduct and peer problems, hyperactivity, and emotionality. Separately, they investigated whether the effects of paternal age on development were more likely attributable to genetic or environmental factors.

    The researchers found that children born to very young and older fathers — below 25 and over 51 years of age, respectively — showed more prosocial behaviors in early development. However, by the time they reached adolescence, they lagged behind their peers with middle-aged fathers. These effects were specific to the social domain and were not observed in relation to maternal age.

    The genetic analyses further revealed that development of social skills was influenced predominantly by genetic rather than environmental factors, and that those genetic effects became even more important as the paternal age increased.

    “Our results reveal several important aspects of how paternal age at conception may affect offspring,” Dr. Janecka said. “We observed those effects in the general population, which suggests children born to very young or older fathers may find social situations more challenging, even if they do not meet the diagnostic criteria for autism. Further, increased importance of genetic factors observed in the offspring of older, but not very young fathers, suggests that there could be different mechanisms behind the effects at these two extremes of paternal age. Although the resulting behavioral profiles in their offspring were similar, the causes could be vastly different.”

    In the future, the researchers want to replicate those findings, as well as establish their biological correlates. “Those developmental differences, if confirmed, are likely traceable to alterations in brain maturation,” Dr. Janecka added. “Identifying neural structures that are affected by paternal age at conception, and seeing how their development differs from the typical patterns, will allow us to better understand the mechanisms behind those effects of paternal age, as well as, likely, autism and schizophrenia.”