1. Study recommends children with autism should be checked for DCD

    July 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Texas at Arlington press release:

    UTA researchers are recommending in a new study that children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder should be checked for developmental coordination disorder since the two maladies are linked.

    In an article published this month in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Priscila Caçola, an assistant professor of kinesiology; UTA librarian Peace Ossom Williamson and Haylie Miller, an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, recommend that individuals with autism be evaluated thoroughly for the possibility of DCD.

    DCD, a neurodevelopmental condition, affects between 2 and 7 percent of school-age children. It is considered one of the major problems afflicting school-age children around the world. Symptoms include poor balance and coordination and underdeveloped handwriting skills. They struggle with basic childhood activities such as riding bicycles. Children with DCD tend to have limited or no athletic ability, are more sedentary and therefore more prone to obesity. They also are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem.

    Many children with autism spectrum disorder have traits commonly found in those with DCD. But the researchers sought to highlight some of the differences, including working memory ability and their ability to grasp things like pencils properly with their hands. They found that there are more differences than similarities.

    Caçola is an expert on DCD. She is the director of UTA’s Little Mavs Movement Academy, a free group intervention program designed to improve the motor skills of children age four to 16.

    Caçola and her colleagues analyzed11 articles that highlighted differences between individuals with ASD and DCD. While there are many similarities and some overlap between the two conditions, they are not identical. The researchers say that for this reason, medical professionals should be more aggressive about finding signs of DCD in children with autism.

    “Motor skills are the root of DCD but they are also really important in autism,” Caçola said. “When autism is diagnosed, motor skills are not the primary concern. But we also found that that there is a lot of co-occurrence of DCD in autism. A lot of individuals may have autism but they are not assessed for DCD. We really need to assess for DCD in children with autism and the earlier the better.”

    Caçola said the notion that DCD can be present in autism is new and gaining more attention because more people now recognize the importance of having strong motor skills. Poor motor skills, if left unchecked, can have lifelong consequences for children in nearly every sphere of their lives, she said.

    “Poor motor skills could be impairing social skills even more,” she added.

    Anne Bavier, dean of UTA’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation, called Caçola’s study an important contribution to the still evolving body of knowledge on DCD.

    “Priscila’s scholarly work coupled with her expertise and passion for tackling DCD has the potential to touch the lives of exponentially more children, not only here in the DFW area but around the country and around the world,” Bavier said.


  2. Adults with autism make more consistent choices

    July 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    People with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) often show a reduced sensitivity to contextual information in perceptual tasks, but new research suggests that this reduced sensitivity may actually lead to more consistent choices in high-level decision-making tasks.

    The findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicate that individuals with ASC are less susceptible to the effects of decoy options when evaluating and choosing the “best” product among several options relative to individuals without ASC.

    “People with autism are indeed more consistent in their choices than the neurotypical population. From an economic perspective, this suggests that people with autism are more rational and less likely to be influenced by the way choices are presented,” says psychology researcher George Farmer of the University of Cambridge.

    While numerous studies have compared the performance of individuals with ASC and neurotypical individuals on a variety of low-level perceptual tasks, Farmer and University of Cambridge co-authors William J. Skylark and Simon Baron-Cohen noticed that relatively little research had examined their performance in the realm of decision making.

    People with autism are thought to focus more on detail and less on the bigger picture — this is often found in more perceptual studies, for instance by showing that people with autism are less susceptible to some visual illusions,” explains Farmer. “We wanted to know if this tendency would apply to higher-level decision-making tasks.”

    The researchers recruited 90 adults with ASC and 212 neurotypical adults to participate in an online decision-making study. The researchers used 10 product pairs and the products in each pair differed on two dimensions. Importantly, the pairs were always presented as part of a trio that included a third decoy item.

    Participants saw each pair twice — in one case, the accompanying decoy was designed to target product A; in the other case, it was designed to target product B. The participants indicated the “best” option out of the three presented.

    For example, participants might be asked to choose one of three USB drives that varied according to their capacity and their lifespan. Product A has a capacity of 32 GB and a lifespan of 20 months, while Product B has less capacity (16 GB) but a longer lifespan (36 months). The decoy, with a capacity of 28 GB and lifespan of 16 months, is objectively worse than A and should therefore be ignored.

    Participants also completed measures assessing aspects of cognitive ability and a measure that assessed traits typically associated with ASC.

    With purely rational economic decision making, the decoy items would be irrelevant and participants would make the same choice both times that products A and B were shown. If the decoys were effective, however, participants would switch their selection when the decoy changed, favoring the product targeted by the decoy in each trio. In the example above, people would be more likely to choose Product A with the decoy present than they would if there were simply comparing Product A and B.

    The data revealed that, compared with neurotypical participants, participants with ASC made more consistent choices and made fewer switches in their selections.

    In a second experiment, the researchers recruited participants from the general population, administering the same task with only those who scored in the bottom and top deciles of a validated measure of traits typically associated with autism. Their results showed an attenuated pattern similar to that seen in the first experiment: Participants who scored high on autistic traits were more likely to make consistent choices compared with low-scoring participants.

    Together, the findings indicate that individuals with ASC are less likely to show a cognitive bias that often affects their neurotypical peers.

    “[C]hoice consistency is regarded as normative in conventional economic theory, so reduced context sensitivity would provide a new demonstration that autism is not in all respects a ‘disability’,” the researchers write in their paper.

    “These findings suggest that people with autism might be less susceptible to having their choices biased by the way information is presented to them — for instance, via marketing tricks when choosing between consumer products,” Farmer adds.

    The results also indicate that the reduced sensitivity to context that is associated with ASC may extend well beyond low-level cognitive processes, shedding new light on the nature of “autistic cognition,” the researchers argue:

    “Altered preferences in a choice task involving verbally described consumer products would suggest the need for a broader characterization and integrated theorizing across levels and domains of processing,” they conclude.


  3. Possible early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder

    July 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the UT Southwestern Medical Center press release:

    Measuring a set of proteins in the blood may enable earlier diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a study from the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

    The research found that the levels of two proteins previously identified as potential markers for ASD could help scientists accurately diagnose the disorder in approximately 75 percent of the children studied. When the two proteins are measured together, the diagnostic accuracy increased to 82 percent.

    The study published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation is among several recent and ongoing efforts to improve early diagnosis of ASD by shifting focus to biological measurements instead of behavioral symptoms.

    Progress in this area could lead to earlier intervention and help limit the effects of the disorder, said Dr. Dwight German, study senior author and Professor of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern.

    “ASD is a very heterogeneous disorder, and if we can identify biomarkers for even a subgroup of ASD patients, then that would be extremely helpful not only for early diagnosis but also for the development of therapeutics,” said Dr. German, whose latest research builds upon an ASD finding published last year in Scientific Reports.

    ASD affects approximately 1 in 68 children in the U.S. The neurodevelopmental disorder is characterized by social interaction and communication challenges, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior.

    Most cases are not diagnosed until about age 4, when communication and social disabilities become apparent. However, recent research offers hope that detection may be possible by age 1 by measuring brain growth.


  4. Mice provide insight into genetics of autism spectrum disorders

    July 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – Davis press release:

    While the definitive causes remain unclear, several genetic and environmental factors increase the likelihood of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, a group of conditions covering a “spectrum” of symptoms, skills and levels of disability.

    Taking advantage of advances in genetic technologies, researchers led by Alex Nord, assistant professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior with the Center for Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis, are gaining a better understanding of the role played by a specific gene involved in autism. The collaborative work appears June 26 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

    “For years, the targets of drug discovery and treatment have been based on an unknown black box of what’s happening in the brain,” said Nord. “Now, using genetic approaches to study the impact of specific mutations found in cases, we’re trying to build a cohesive model that links genetic control of brain development with behavior and brain function.”

    The Nord laboratory studies how the genome encodes brain development and function, with a particular interest in understanding the genetic basis of neurological disorders.

    Mouse brain models

    There is no known specific genetic cause for most cases of autism, but many different genes have been linked to the disorder. In rare, specific cases of people with ASD, one copy of a gene called CHD8 is mutated and loses function. The CHD8 gene encodes a protein responsible for packaging DNA in cells throughout the body. Packaging of DNA controls how genes are turned on and off in cells during development.

    Because mice and humans share on average 85 percent of similarly coded genes, mice can be used as a model to study how genetic mutations impact brain development. Changes in mouse DNA mimic changes in human DNA and vice-versa. In addition, mice exhibit behaviors that can be used as models for exploring human behavior.

    Nord’s laboratory at UC Davis and his collaborators have been working to characterize changes in brain development and behavior of mice carrying a mutated copy of CHD8.

    “Behavioral tests with mice give us information about sociability, anxiety and cognition. From there, we can examine changes at the anatomical and cellular level to find links across dimensions,” said Nord. “This is critical to understanding the biology of disorders like autism.”

    By inducing mutation of the CHD8 gene in mice and studying their brain development, Nord and his team have established that the mice experience cognitive impairment and have increased brain volume. Both conditions are also present in individuals with a mutated CHD8 gene.

    New implications for early and lifelong brain development

    Analysis of data from mouse brains reveals that CHD8 gene expression peaks during the early stages of brain development. Mutations in CHD8 lead to excessive production of dividing cells in the brain, as well as megalencephaly, an enlarged brain condition common in individuals with ASD. These findings suggest the developmental causes of increased brain size.

    More surprisingly, Nord also discovered that the pathological changes in gene expression in the brains of mice with a mutated CHD8 continued through the lifetime of the mice. Genes involved in critical biological processes like synapse function were impacted by the CHD8 mutation. This suggests that CHD8 plays a role in brain function throughout life and may affect more than early brain development in autistic individuals.

    While Nord’s research centers on severe ASD conditions, the lessons learned may eventually help explain many cases along the autism spectrum.

    Collaborating to improve understanding

    Nord’s work bridges disciplines and has incorporated diverse collaborators. The genetic mouse model was developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory using CRISPR editing technology, and co-authors Jacqueline Crawley and Jill Silverman of the UC Davis MIND Institute evaluated mouse behavior to characterize social interactions and cognitive impairments.

    Nord also partnered with co-author Konstantinos Zarbalis of the Institute for Pediatric Regenerative Medicine at UC Davis to examine changes in cell proliferation in the brains of mice with the CHD8 mutation, and with Jason Lerch from the Mouse Imaging Centre at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, to conduct magnetic resonance imaging on mouse brains.

    “It’s the act of collaboration that I find really satisfying,” Nord said. “The science gets a lot more interesting and powerful when we combine different approaches. Together we were able to show that mutation to CHD8 causes changes to brain development, which in turn alters brain anatomy, function and behavior.”

    In the future, Nord hopes to identify how CHD8 packages DNA in neural cells and to determine the specific impacts to early brain development and synaptic function. Nord hopes that deep exploration of CHD8 mutations will ultimately yield greater knowledge of the general factors contributing to ASD and intellectual disability.


  5. Elevated rate of autism symptoms found in children with Tourette syndrome

    July 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – San Francisco press release:

    Around one in five children with Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary movements and vocalizations, met criteria for autism in a study headed by UC San Francisco. But this prevalence may be more a reflection of similarity in symptoms than actual autism, according to the study’s researchers.

    Researchers tested 535 children and adults with Tourette’s for autism, using a self-reporting test called the Social Responsiveness Scale. Among the 294 children tested, 22.8 percent reached the cutoff for autism, versus 8.7 percent of the 241 adults. In contrast, autism is estimated to affect between 0.3 and 2.9 percent of the general population, according to studies cited in the paper.

    The Social Responsiveness Scale Second Edition is a 65-item quantitative measure of autism symptoms that assesses the ability to engage in “emotionally appropriate reciprocal social interactions.” It evaluates levels of social awareness, social cognition, social communication, social motivation, and restrictive interests and repetitive behavior. Its threshold for autism compares favorably with the diagnostic gold standard, the Autism Diagnostic Interview, the researchers noted.

    The study is publishing on June 22, 2017, in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

    OCD, ADHD Frequent Co-Occurrences

    The researchers wanted to examine autism symptoms in patients with Tourette’s, including those whose diagnosis was coupled with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conditions that frequently co-occur. Tourette’s, OCD and ADHD have been shown to share common symptoms and genetic relationships in a recent study by the same researchers.

    “Assessing autism symptom patterns in a large Tourette’s sample may be helpful in determining whether some of this overlap is due to symptoms found in both disorders, rather than an overlapping etiology,” said first author Sabrina Darrow, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at UCSF.

    “Our results suggest that although autism diagnoses were higher in individuals with Tourette’s, some of the increase may be due to autism-like symptoms, especially repetitive behaviors that are more strongly related to obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

    The researchers found that the highest scores on the Social Responsiveness Scale, which met autism criteria, were found in participants with Tourette’s and either OCD or ADHD. Among those with Tourette’s who met the cutoff for autism, 83 percent also met criteria for OCD, the researchers found, noting that high scores were especially evident in the part of the autism test that measures restrictive interests and repetitive behavior.

    Wide Gulf Between Adults, Kids with Autism Diagnosis.

    A potentially compelling argument against the surprisingly high rates of autism found in this sample was the wide discrepancy between children and adults who met the diagnostic criteria. Tourette’s is usually diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 9; symptoms most often peak in the early teens and start to abate in the early twenties, with continued improvement in early adulthood.

    “Children were more than twice as likely to meet the cutoff than adults, indicating that as tics recede, so do symptoms of autism. In contrast, autism is usually lifelong,” said Darrow.

    “Previous studies have shown that children with mood and anxiety disorders also have higher rates of autism symptoms, based on the Social Responsiveness Scale,” said senior author Carol Mathews, MD, who did the research while a professor of psychiatry at UCSF. She currently is adjunct professor of psychiatry at UCSF and professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

    Psychiatric Impairment Possible Factor in Diagnosis

    “This suggests that some of the increase may reflect underlying psychiatric impairment rather than being specific for autism. Some of the children in the study probably have autism, others have symptoms that mimic autism, but are not really due to autism. These symptoms are called phenocopies.”

    Tourette’s affects between one and 10 in 1,000 children according to the National Institutes of Health. Like autism, it is significantly more prevalent in males. Common tics include repetitive throat clearing, blinking or grimacing. Most people do not require medication to suppress their symptoms, but treatment may be recommended for co-occurring ADHD and OCD.


  6. Study suggests gut-based treatments for autism

    July 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Experts have called for large-scale studies into altering the make-up of bacteria in the gut, after a review showed that this might reduce the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Until now, caregivers have relied on rehabilitation, educational interventions and drugs to reduce ASD symptoms, but now researchers suggest that treating this condition could be as simple as changing their diet.

    A review of more than 150 papers on ASD and gut bacteria found that since the 1960s, scientists have been reporting links between the composition of bacteria in the gut and autistic behaviour. The review highlights many studies showing that restoring a healthy balance in gut bacteria can treat ASD symptoms.

    “To date there are no effective therapies to treat this range of brain developmental disorders,” explains Dr Qinrui Li of Peking University, China. “The number of people being diagnosed with ASD is on the rise. As well as being an expensive condition to manage, ASD has a huge emotional and social cost on families of sufferers.”

    The link between the gut and ASD is well-known among sufferers: problems like diarrhea, constipation and flatulence are commonly reported. The root of gastro-intestinal problems like these is an imbalance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut.

    A cheap and effective treatment?

    Many of the papers reviewed support the idea of a gut-brain axis — a way in which factors in the gut can affect processes in the brain. So these gastro-intestinal problems may have a more sinister side. The overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut inevitably leads to an overproduction of by-products — including toxins. These can make the gut lining more permeable. Then toxins, by-products and even undigested food can get into the bloodstream and travel to the brain.

    In a child under three years old, whose brain is at the height of development, the presence of these chemicals can impair neuro-development, leading to ASD.

    What causes infants to develop an imbalance in the gut microbiota?

    “ASD is likely to be a result of both genetic and environmental factors” explains Dr Li. “The environmental factors include the overuse of antibiotics in babies, maternal obesity and diabetes during pregnancy, how a baby is delivered and how long it is breastfed. All of these can affect the balance of bacteria in an infant’s gut, so are risk factors for ASD.”

    However, the researchers found a significant body of evidence that reverting the gut microbiota to a healthy state can reduce ASD symptoms.

    “Efforts to restore the gut microbiota to that of a healthy person has been shown to be really effective” continues Dr Li. “Our review looked at taking probiotics, prebiotics, changing the diet — for example, to gluten- and casein-free diets, and faecal matter transplants. All had a positive impact on symptoms .”

    These include such things as increased sociability, a reduction in repetitive behaviour, and improved social communication: all hugely beneficial to the life of an ASD sufferer.

    The message of this review is one of positivity. This could well be a breakthrough in the treatment of this disorder. However, the researchers believe that the studies are too few and too small, and that new clinical trials are needed to take this research to the next level.

    “We are encouraged by our findings, but there is no doubt that further work needs to be carried out in this field” says Dr Li. “We need more well-designed and larger-scale studies to support our theory. For now, behavioural therapies remain the best way to treat ASD. We would hope that our review leads to research on the link between the gut microbiota and ASD, and eventually a cheap and effective treatment.”


  7. Serotonin improves sociability in mouse model of autism

    July 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the RIKEN press release:

    Scientists at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI) in Japan have linked early serotonin deficiency to several symptoms that occur in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Published in Science Advances, the study examined serotonin levels, brain circuitry, and behavior in a mouse model of ASD. Experiments showed that increasing serotonergic activity in the brain during early development led to more balanced brain activity and improved the abnormal sociability of these mice.

    As group leader Toru Takumi explains, “Although abnormalities in the serotonin system have been thought to be part of the ASD pathophysiology, the functional impact of serotonin deficiency in ASD was totally unknown. Our work shows that early serotonergic intervention rescues regional excitatory/inhibitory abnormalities in the brain as well as behavioral abnormalities.”

    Although the causes and symptoms of ASD are varied, many people with ASD have too many genomic mutations. Previously, Takumi’s group generated a mouse model of ASD by duplicating in mice one of the most frequent copy variations found in people with ASD. These mice show many behavioral symptoms of ASD, including poor social interaction and low behavioral flexibility. The model mice also have reduced levels of serotonin in the brain during development, another symptom that has been found in patients with ASD.

    In the newly published work, the researchers focused on this finding and examined how it affected the behavior of neurons in the brain as well as the behavior of the mice themselves.

    After determining that the part of the brain that contains the highest amount of serotonin neurons was less active in the ASD model mice than in wild-type mice, the group examined a sensory region of the brain that receives input from these serotonergic neurons.

    Patients with ASD often exhibit abnormal responses in sensory regions of the brain, and the RIKEN scientists found similar abnormalities in the brain region of the model mice that detects whisker movement. Although specific whisker movements are normally tightly mapped across this brain region, calcium imaging showed that a given whisker movement activated a much larger region of sensory cortex in the ASD model mice. This means that the responses of neighboring regions were more overlapped, which reduces the ability to distinguish sensations.

    The overlap in sensory maps indicated that normally inactive neurons were somehow active. This pointed to reduced inhibitory activity, and the group confirmed this by showing that the ASD model mice had fewer inhibitory synapses and a lower frequency of naturally occurring inhibitory inputs in the sensory region.

    These findings indicated an abnormality in cortical excitatory/inhibitory balance. First author Nobuhiro Nakai notes, “Because the sensory region was receiving abnormally low serotonin input, we reasoned that giving infant mice serotonin therapy might reduce the imbalance and also rescue some of the behavioral abnormalities.”

    To test this hypothesis, the team administered a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, commonly referred to as an SSRI, to infant mice during the first three weeks after birth. This time period corresponded to the time period in which reduced serotonin was observed in the model mice. Researchers found that sensory neurons in the model mice treated with the SSRI showed more normal inhibitory responses, which improved the excitatory/inhibitory balance.

    They also found that this intervention improved the social behavior of the model mice in adulthood. Social behavior was measured with a test in which mice are exposed to a cage with an unknown mouse or an empty cage. Normal mice spend more time near the cage with the unknown mouse, while the ASD model mice prefer the empty cage. After the SSRI treatment, ASD model mice spend more time around the cage with the unknown mouse, indicating more normal social behavior. Another improvement was seen in the communication behavior of the ASD mouse pups. While these pups displayed anxiety by produced more vocalizations than normal, this behavior was rescued by the SSRI treatment. These findings suggest that serotonin may have be potentially therapeutic for discrete ASD symptoms.

    Looking toward the future, Takumi is optimistic, yet cautious. “Our genetic model for ASD is one of many and because the number of genetic mutations associated with ASD is so high, we need to investigate differences and common mechanisms among multiple genetic ASD models. Additionally, before we can administrate SSRIs to patients with ASD, we must study the effects of SSRIs in more detail, especially because adverse effects have been reported in some animal studies.”


  8. Study suggests music sessions may help those with speech difficulties

    June 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Plymouth press release:

    Tailored music sessions could be crucial in transforming the lives of millions of people whose speech is impacted by learning difficulties, strokes, dementia, brain damage and autism, a new study suggests.

    It could enable individuals and their families to feel less isolated or neglected within society, while enhancing their ability to communicate, both with each other and the wider world.

    But consistent funding and provision needs to be increased, while health and community providers need to implement a more integrated approach to using music in supporting those impacted by strokes and dementia.

    Those are among the key findings of Beyond Words, a project led by the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Music Zone (PMZ) and funded by the Arts Council England Research Grants programme.

    It focused on those who have problems communicating with words — who the researchers now term as being ‘post-verbal’ — and how music might be used to help them.

    The study is the first to focus on post-verbal people and music, and one of the first to explore how music can have a positive effect on a wide range of health-related issues and how future provision might take them all into account rather than focussing on only specific groups within society.

    Jocey Quinn, Professor of Education at the University, led the study which involved a series of interviews, focus groups and arts workshops, as well as observing the regular sessions offered by PMZ.

    She said: “What we have shown is that music can give people a voice, allowing them to explore their creativity as well as communicating both pleasure and pain. In post-verbal children, music can enable carers and families to see the full potential of the individual, while in someone with dementia, a person’s identity can re-emerge when families might have thought it had been lost. This is not simply talking about a minority group, but millions of people who currently do not get good provision, and finding ways to give people hope for the future.”

    Debbie Geraghty is the Executive Director of Plymouth Music Zone, the award-winning charity which was the focus of the groundbreaking longitudinal research. The charity is at the forefront of using music as a powerful tool for inclusion and social change and reaches out to vulnerable children, young people and adults across Plymouth and beyond.

    She added: “This research really shines a light on the tremendous personal and social impacts music can have on individuals and, indeed, how to go about using music to achieve those changes. Surprisingly for us though, it shows just how much those effects really ripple out among families and communities and uncovers the true depth and importance of the work. Plymouth Music Zone willingly opened its doors to researchers because we care so deeply about using the power of music to include and value everyone in society. I hope these valuable insights influence others far and wide as the participants who took part in this research have enrichened our lives and taught us more about the importance of connection, kindness and care than we could ever have imagined possible.”

    For the project, research assistant Claudia Blandon spent 16 months observing sessions delivered by PMZ and following the lives of 25 people who attend sessions at the centre and other community venues like care homes. MPZ’s Training and Research Manager and Music Leader, Anna Batson, was the third member of the research team who brought musical expertise to the findings.

    It also involved interviews with 44 family members, which offered an insight into the richness of the lives led by ‘post-verbal’ people, 30 arts workshops with the post-verbal people and four focus groups with music leaders and volunteers based around current provision and how they felt it might be enhanced.

    The final report is now being communicated to policy makers, charities and others in the hope that the type of sessions offered at Plymouth Music Zone, and other similar centres, can be increased in a sustainable manner.

    Some of its findings have already been communicated during conferences in Plymouth, Poland and the United States, with the hope that the lessons learned could be implemented internationally.

    Phil Gibby, Area Director, South West, Arts Council England, said: “We are delighted to have been able to support the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Music Zone through our National-Lottery funded Research Grants programme to carry out this important project. Our research programme aims to deepen knowledge and understanding of the impact of art and culture, and the complex role it plays in our experience as individuals and a society. We are pleased to see that the results of this study provide credible and robust evidence that demonstrates the wide social benefits of art and culture and hope this goes some way to making the links truly recognised.”


  9. Study examines reasons for eye contact difficulties in autism

    June 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Massachusetts General Hospital press release:

    Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find it difficult to look others in the eyes. This avoidance has typically been interpreted as a sign of social and personal indifference, but reports from people with autism suggests otherwise. Many say that looking others in the eye is uncomfortable or stressful for them — some will even say that “it burns” — all of which points to a neurological cause. Now, a team of investigators based at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital has shed light on the brain mechanisms involved in this behavior. They reported their findings in a Scientific Reports paper published online this month.

    “The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to a lack of concern,” says Nouchine Hadjikhani, MD, PhD, director of neurolimbic research in the Martinos Center and corresponding author of the new study. “Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain.”

    The key to this research lies in the brain’s subcortical system, which is responsible for the natural orientation toward faces seen in newborns and is important later for emotion perception. The subcortical system can be specifically activated by eye contact, and previous work by Hadjikhani and colleagues revealed that, among those with autism, it was oversensitive to effects elicited by direct gaze and emotional expression. In the present study, she took that observation further, asking what happens when those with autism are compelled to look in the eyes of faces conveying different emotions.

    Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Hadjikhani and colleagues measured differences in activation within the face-processing components of the subcortical system in people with autism and in control participants as they viewed faces either freely or when constrained to viewing the eye-region. While activation of these structures was similar for both groups exhibited during free viewing, overactivation was observed in participants with autism when concentrating on the eye-region. This was especially true with fearful faces, though similar effects were observed when viewing happy, angry and neutral faces.

    The findings of the study support the hypothesis of an imbalance between the brain’s excitatory and inhibitory signaling networks in autism — excitatory refers to neurotransmitters that stimulate the brain, while inhibitory refers to those that calm it and provide equilibrium. Such an imbalance, likely the result of diverse genetic and environmental causes, can strengthen excitatory signaling in the subcortical circuitry involved in face perception. This in turn can result in an abnormal reaction to eye contact, an aversion to direct gaze and consequently abnormal development of the social brain.

    In revealing the underlying reasons for eye-avoidance, the study also suggests more effective ways of engaging individuals with autism. “The findings indicate that forcing children with autism to look into someone’s eyes in behavioral therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them,” says Hadjikhani, an associate professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School. “An approach involving slow habituation to eye contact may help them overcome this overreaction and be able to handle eye contact in the long run, thereby avoiding the cascading effects that this eye-avoidance has on the development of the social brain.”

    The researchers are already planning to follow up the research. Hadjikhani is now seeking funding for a study that will use magnetoencephalography (MEG) together with eye-tracking and other behavioral tests to probe more deeply the relationship between the subcortical system and eye contact avoidance in autism.


  10. 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.