1. Study suggests adults with autism show diminished brain response to hearing their own name

    February 16, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Ghent University press release:

    Previously, research has shown that children at risk of an autism diagnosis respond less to hearing their own name. Now, a new study from the research group EXPLORA of Ghent University shows for the first time that the brain response to hearing one’s own name is also diminished in adults with an autism diagnosis. The study was conducted by Dr. Annabel Nijhof as part of her PhD project, supervised by Prof. Dr. Roeljan Wiersema and Prof. Dr. Marcel Brass.

    Whether you are at a party or in line at the supermarket, when you hear someone calling your name this usually elicits a strong orienting response. Hearing your own name typically signals that another person intends to attract your attention, and orienting to the own name is considered an important aspect of successful social interaction. Problems with social interaction and communication belong to the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Studies with infants at risk for ASD have indicated that a diminished orienting response to the own name is one of the strongest predictors for developing ASD. Surprisingly however, this had not yet been studied in individuals with an ASD diagnosis.

    In a new study from Ghent University, Belgium, the brain response to hearing one’s own name versus other names was compared between a group of adults with ASD, and a control group of adults without an ASD diagnosis. Participants in the study were listening to their own name, and names of close and unfamiliar others, but did not need to respond to these names. Meanwhile, their brain activity was being recorded.

    Results showed that, as expected, the brain response to one’s own name was much stronger than for other names in neurotypical adults. Strikingly, this preferential effect for the own name was completely absent in adults with ASD. Furthermore, this group difference was related to diminished activity in the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ). Previous research has related the rTPJ to the processes of self-other distinction and mentalizing (representing another person’s mental states). During these processes, abnormal patterns of activity have been found in individuals with ASD.

    This study is the first to show that brains of adults with ASD respond differently when hearing their own name, suggestive of a core deficit in self-other distinction associated with dysfunction of the rTPJ. This novel finding is important for our understanding of this complex condition and its development, and warrants further research on the possibility to use the atypical neural response to the own name as a potential biological marker of ASD.


  2. Study looks at what makes children with autism less social than their peers

    February 12, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of California – Riverside press release:

    Pick a hand, any hand. That familiar refrain, repeated in schoolyards the world over, is the basis of a simple guessing game that was recently adapted to study how and why kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) interact with the people around them.

    The game is the brainchild of Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. As a licensed clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience, Stavropoulos looks closely at electrical activity in the brains of children with ASD and typical development, or TD, to discern differences in the respective groups’ reward systems.

    Historically, clinicians and scientists have proposed a variety of theories to explain why kids with ASD tend to be less socially communicative than their TD peers. One popular theory, the social motivation hypothesis, suggests that kids with ASD aren’t intrinsically motivated to interact with other people because they aren’t neurologically “rewarded” by social interactions the same way TD kids are.

    “Most of us get a hit of dopamine when we interact with other people, whether it’s through making eye contact or sharing something good that’s happened to us — it feels good to be social,” Stavropoulos said. “The social motivation hypothesis says kids with autism don’t get that same reward from social interaction, so they don’t go out of their way to engage with people because it’s not rewarding for them.”

    A second theory, sensory over-responsivity — also known as the overly intense world hypothesis — posits that because kids with ASD interpret sensory cues more intensely than their TD peers, those with ASD tend to shy away from interactions they perceive as overwhelming or aversive.

    “Kids with autism often find noises too loud or lights too bright, or they find them not intense enough,” Stavropoulos said. “Most of us wouldn’t want to talk to someone whom we perceive as screaming, especially in a room that was already too bright, with ambient noise that was already too loud.” Instead, sensory over-responsivity argues, such interactions compel many individuals with ASD to withdraw from socialization as a self-soothing behavior.

    But according to Stavropoulos, who also serves as assistant director of UCR’s SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center, it may be possible for these seemingly competing theories to exist in tandem.

    Stavropoulos and UC San Diego’s Leslie Carver, her research colleague and former graduate advisor, used electrophysiology to study the neural activity of 43 children between the ages of 7 and 10 — 23 of whom were TD and 20 of whom had ASD — during a guessing game-style simulation that provided participants with both social and nonsocial rewards. Their results, published this week in the journal Molecular Autism, provide a glimpse at the brain mechanisms behind autism.

    Wearing a cap outfitted with 33 electrodes, each child sat before a computer screen showing pairs of boxes containing question marks. Much like the format of the “pick a hand” guessing game, the child then chose the box he or she thought was the “right” one (in reality, the answers were randomized).

    Stavropoulos said it was crucial to design a simulation that would allow the researchers to study participants’ neural reactions to social and nonsocial rewards during two stages: reward anticipation, or the period before the child knew whether he or she had chosen the correct answer, and reward processing, or the period immediately after.

    “We structured the game so that the kids would pick an answer, and then there would be a brief pause,” Stavropoulos said. “It was during that pause that the kids would begin to wonder, ‘Did I get it?’ and we could observe them getting excited; the more rewarding something is to a person, the more that anticipation builds.”

    Each participant played the game in two blocks. During the social block, kids who chose the right box saw a smiling face and kids who chose the wrong box saw a sad, frowning face. During the nonsocial block, meanwhile, the faces were scrambled and reformed in the shapes of arrows pointing up to denote correct answers and down to denote incorrect ones.

    “After the kids saw whether they were right or wrong, we were then able to observe the post-stimulus reward-related activity,” Stavropoulos said of the process, which involved comparing participants’ neural oscillation patterns. The researchers gleaned several key findings from the simulation:

    • TD kids anticipated social awards — in this case, the pictures of faces — more strongly than kids with ASD.
    • Not only did children with ASD anticipate social rewards less than their TD peers, but within the ASD group, the researchers found that kids with more severe ASD were anticipating the nonsocial rewards, or the arrows, the most.
    • During reward processing, or the period after participants learned whether they had chosen the right or wrong box, the researchers observed more reward-related brain activity in TD children but more attention-related brain activity among children with ASD, which Stavropoulos said may be related to feelings of sensory overload in kids with ASD.
    • Among the autism group, meanwhile, kids with more severe ASD also showed heightened responsiveness to positive social feedback, which Stavropoulos said may indicate hyperactivity, or the state of being overwhelmed by “correct” social feedback that is commonly associated with sensory over-responsivity.

    Stavropoulos said the duo’s results provide support for both the social motivation hypothesis and the overly intense world hypothesis.

    Kids with autism might not be as rewarded by social interactions as typically developing kids are, but that doesn’t mean their reward systems are entirely broken,” she added. “This research makes the case for developing clinical interventions that help children with autism better understand the reward value of other people — to slowly teach these kids that interacting with others can be rewarding.

    “But, it is critical to do this while being sensitive to these kids’ sensory experiences,” she continued. “We don’t want to overwhelm them, or make them feel sensory overload. It’s a delicate balance between making social interactions rewarding while being aware of how loudly we speak, how excited our voices sound, and how bright the lights are.”


  3. Distinct brain rhythms, regions help us reason about categories

    February 10, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Picower Institute at MIT press release:

    We categorize pretty much everything we see, and remarkably, we often achieve that feat whether the items look patently similar — like Fuji and McIntosh apples — or they share a more abstract similarity — like a screwdriver and a drill. A new study at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory explains how.

    Categorization is a fundamental cognitive mechanism,” says Earl Miller, Picower Professor in MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “It’s the way the brain learns to generalize. If your brain didn’t have this ability, you’d be overwhelmed by details of the sensory world. Every time you experienced something, if it was in different lighting or at a different angle, your brain would treat it as a brand new thing.”

    In the new paper in Neuron, Miller’s lab, led by postdoctoral associate Andreas Wutz and graduate student Roman Loonis, shows that the ability to categorize based on straightforward resemblance or on abstract similarity arises from the brain’s use of distinct rhythms, at distinct times, in distinct parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Specifically when animals needed to match images that bore close resemblance, an increase in the power of high-frequency gamma rhythms in the ventral lateral PFC did the trick. When they had to match images based on a more abstract similarity, that depended on a later surge of lower frequency beta rhythms in the dorsal lateral PFC.

    Miller says those findings suggest a model of how the brain achieves category abstractions. It shows that meeting the challenge of abstraction is not merely a matter of thinking the same way but harder. Instead, a different mechanism in a different part of the brain takes over when simple, sensory comparison is not enough for us to judge whether two things belong to the same category.

    By precisely describing the frequencies, locations and the timing of rhythms that govern categorization, the findings, if replicated in humans, could prove helpful in research to understand an aspect of some autism spectrum disorders, Miller says. In ASD categorization can be challenging for patients, especially when objects or faces appear atypical. Potentially, clinicians could measure rhythms to determine whether patients who struggle to recognize abstract similarities are employing the mechanisms differently.

    Connecting the dots

    To conduct the study, Wutz, Loonis, Miller and co-authors measured brain rhythms in key areas of the PFC associated with categorization as animals played some on-screen games. In each round, animals would see a pattern of dots — a sample from one of two different categories of configurations. Then the sample would disappear and after a delay, two choices of dot designs would appear. The subject’s task was to fix its gaze on whichever one belonged to the same category as the sample. Sometimes the right answer was evident by sheer visual resemblance, but sometimes the similarity was based on a more abstract criterion the animal could infer over successive trials. The experimenters precisely quantified the degree of abstraction based on geometric calculations of the distortion of the dot pattern compared to a category archetype.

    “This study was very well defined” Wutz says. “It provided a mathematically correct way to distinguish something so vague as abstraction. It’s a judgement call very often, but not with the paradigm that we used.”

    Gamma in the ventral PFC always peaked in power when the sample appeared, as if the animals were making a “does this sample look like category A or not?” assessment as soon as they were shown it. Beta power in the dorsal PFC peaked during the subsequent delay period when abstraction was required, as if the animals realized that there wasn’t enough visual resemblance and deeper thought would be necessary to make the upcoming choice.

    Notably, the data was rich enough to reveal several nuances about what was going on. Category information and rhythm power were so closely associated, for example, that the researchers measured greater rhythm power in advance of correct category judgements than in advance of incorrect ones. They also found that the role of beta power was not based on the difficulty of choosing a category (i.e. how similar the choices were) but specifically on whether the correct answer had a more abstract or literal similarity to the sample.

    By analyzing the rhythm measurements, the researchers could even determine how the animals were approaching the categorization task. They weren’t judging whether a sample belonged to one category or the other, Wutz says. Instead they were judging whether they belonged to a preferred category or not.

    “That preference was reflected in the brain rhythms,” Wutz says. “We saw the strongest effects for each animal’s preferred category.”

    The National institute of Mental Health funded the study, which was co-authored by graduate student Jacob Donoghue and research scientist Jefferson Roy.


  4. Study suggests bilingualism may increase cognitive flexibility in kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

    January 21, 2018 by Ashley

    From the McGill University press release:

    Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have a hard time switching gears from one task to another. But being bilingual may actually make it a bit easier for them to do so, according to a new study which was recently published in Child Development.

    “This is a novel and surprising finding,” says Prof. Aparna Nadig, the senior author of the paper, from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University. “Over the past 15 years there has been a significant debate in the field about whether there is a ‘bilingual advantage’ in terms of executive functions. Some researchers have argued convincingly that living as a bilingual person and having to switch languages unconsciously to respond to the linguistic context in which the communication is taking place increases cognitive flexibility. But no one has yet published research that clearly demonstrates that this advantage may also extend to children on the autism spectrum. And so it’s very exciting to find that it does.”

    The researchers arrived at this conclusion after comparing how easily 40 children between the ages of six and nine, with or without ASD, who were either monolingual or bilingual, were able to shift tasks in a computer-generated test. There were ten children in each category.

    Blue rabbits or red boats

    The children were initially asked to sort a single object appearing on a computer screen by colour (i.e. sort blue rabbits and red boats as being either red or blue) and were then asked to switch and sort the same objects instead by their shape (i.e. sort blue rabbits and red boats by shape regardless of their color).

    The researchers found that bilingual children with ASD performed significantly better when it came to the more complex part of the task-shifting test relative to children with ASD who were unilingual. It is a finding which has potentially far-reaching implications for the families of children with ASD.

    “It is critical to have more sound evidence for families to use when making important educational and child-rearing decisions, since they are often advised that exposing a child with ASD to more than one language will just worsen their language difficulties,” says Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, the paper’s first author, and a recent McGill PhD graduate. “But there are an increasing number of families with children with ASD for whom using two or more languages is a common and valued practice and, as we know, in bilingual societies such as ours in Montreal, speaking only one language can be a significant obstacle in adulthood for employment, educational, and community opportunities.”

    Despite the small sample size, the researchers believe that the ‘bilingual advantage’ that they saw in children with ASD has highly significant implications and should be studied further. They plan to follow the children with ASD that they tested in this study over the next three-five years to see how they develop. The researchers want to see whether the bilingual advantage they observed in the lab may also be observed in daily life as the children age.


  5. Study suggests girls’ social camouflage skills may delay or prevent autism diagnosis

    January 17, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Children’s National Health System press release:

    On parent-reporting measures, girls with autism seem to struggle more than boys with performing routine tasks like getting up and dressed or making small talk, even when the study group is normalized to meet similar basic clinical diagnostic criteria across sexes. The findings add to the growing evidence that girls with autism may show symptoms differently than boys, and that some of the social difficulties experienced by females with autism may be masked during clinical assessments.

    The new study, led by researchers from the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Health System, was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

    “Based on our research criteria, parents report that the girls in our study with autism seem to have a more difficult time with day-to-day skills than the boys,” says Allison Ratto, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a clinical psychologist within the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National. “This could mean that girls who meet the same clinical criteria as boys actually are more severely affected by ongoing social and adaptive skill deficits that we don’t capture in current clinical measures, and that autistic girls, in general, may be camouflaging these types of autism deficits during direct assessments.”

    The study used an age-and IQ-matched sample of school-aged youth diagnosed with ASD to assess sex differences according to the standard clinical tests including the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), as well as parent reported autistic traits and adaptive skills.

    “This study is one of the first to eliminate many of the variables that obscure how sex impacts presentation of autism traits and symptoms. Though today’s clinical tools do a really good job capturing boys at a young age, with a wide range of symptom severity, they do it less effectively for girls,” adds Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, and another study contributor. “This is a crucial issue considering how much we know about the success of early interventions on long-term outcomes. We have to find better ways to identify girls with autism so we can ensure the best approaches reach all who need them as early as possible.”

    Specific evidence of women more effectively masking or camouflaging social and communication deficits is limited, but autistic self-advocates theorize that the unique social pressures and demands on girls at a young age may teach them to “blend in” and “get by,” including maintaining successful, brief social interactions.

    As a research partner of an $11.7 million Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) grant from the National Institutes of Health to the George Washington University Autism and Neurodevelopment Disorders Institute, the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National will continue investigations into sex differences, and aims to develop self-reporting measures for adolescents and adults that better capture additional populations — including females and non-cisgender males.

    “We hope the ACE studies will help us better understand the diversity of the autism spectrum by allowing us to focus on the ways in which differences in sex and gender identity might influence the expression of autistic traits, thereby enabling us to make more accurate diagnoses,” Dr. Ratto concludes.


  6. Gene expression study may provide insights into autism, other neurodevelopmental disorders

    December 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – San Francisco press release:

    The human brain has been called the most complex object in the cosmos, with 86 billion intricately interconnected neurons and an equivalent number of supportive glial cells. One of science’s greatest mysteries is how an organ of such staggering complexity — capable of producing both love poetry and scientific discovery — builds itself from just a handful of stem cells in the early embryo.

    Now researchers at UC San Francisco have taken the first step towards a comprehensive atlas of gene expression in cells across the developing human brain, making available new insights into how specific cells and gene networks contribute to building this most complex of organs, and serving as a resource for researchers around the world to study the interplay between these genetic programs and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, intellectual disability, and schizophrenia.

    The work described in the new paper — published December 8, 2017, in Science — was led by three young UCSF researchers: Tomasz Nowakowski, PhD, an assistant professor of anatomy; Alex Pollen, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology; and Aparna Bhaduri, PhD, when all three were post-doctoral researchers in the UCSF lab of Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, the new paper’s senior author.

    “It’s critically important to be able to look at questions of brain development in real human tissue when you’re trying to study human disease. Many of the insights we’re able to gain with this data can’t be seen in the mouse,” said Kriegstein, a professor of neurology and director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF.

    Previously, Pollen and Nowakowski had developed techniques for analyzing distinctive patterns of DNA activity in individual cells extracted from human brain tissue. The approach enabled a wide range of studies of human brain development, including implicating a new class of neural stem cell recently discovered by the lab in the evolutionary expansion of the human brain and identifying how the mosquito-borne Zika virus may contribute to microcephaly in infants infected in utero.

    Working with Bhaduri, who has a background in statistics and bioinformatics, Pollen and Nowakowski began exploring how specific classes of neurons and stem cells in the developing brain contribute to normal brain growth as well as to neurodevelopmental disease, and have begun to build a comprehensive, open-source atlas of gene expression across the developing brain, which they hope will serve as a resource for other scientists.

    “This is an attempt to generate an unbiased view of what genes are expressed in every cell type in the developing human brain in order to highlight potential cellular vulnerabilities in patient-relevant mutations,” said Nowakowski.

    “Identifying gene variants that are general risk factors for neurological and psychiatric disease is important, but understanding exactly which cell types in the developing brain are compromised and what the consequences are is still extremely challenging,” Pollen added. “A cell atlas could serve as a bridge to help us to do this with more confidence.”

    In their new Science paper, the researchers analyzed gene expression in single cells across key developmental time points and from different regions of the brain. Bhaduri then used statistical algorithms to cluster different cells based on their patterns of gene expression.

    This analysis allowed the team to trace the genetic signals driving brain development at a much finer level, both regionally and over time, than had previously been possible. For example, the researchers were able to identify previously unknown gene expression differences between the neural stem cells that give rise to the brain’s deep structures versus its neocortical surface, and to show that molecular signatures of different neural cell types arise much earlier in brain development than previously realized.

    “I was excited to come into this project with an incredibly rich dataset to analyze,” Bhaduri said. “By analyzing this dataset in new ways, we were able to discover early molecular distinctions across areas and over time that begin to specify the astonishing diversity of neurons in the cerebral cortex.”

    One of the team’s most exciting new observations suggests a link between autism and a type of neural stem cell called outer-radial glia (oRGs), discovered by the Kriegstein lab in 2010. These stem cell populations are greatly expanded in primates and may be responsible for the radical expansion of the cortex that gave rise to human intelligence. In the new study, the researchers discovered that during the second trimester of human brain development, oRG cells express genes related to a fundamental signaling pathway called mTOR, defects in which have previously been implicated in autism and several other psychiatric disorders. This finding suggests that future studies should also consider the role mTOR-expressing oRG cells may play in the origins of these disorders.

    Another provocative observation from the new study was that transient gene expression events during brain development set up broad distinctions in neural fate between cells in different areas in the cerebral cortex. This contrasts with an idea that has been dominant in neuroscience for many years: that the neocortex is made up of nearly identical “cortical columns” — a standard circuit of distinct cell types that connect across the cortex’s six layers — which tile the cortical surface like the hexagons in a honeycomb. In that model, the cell types and their local connections are generally similar everywhere — it’s just the inputs and outputs to the column that vary from place to place in the cortex. In contrast, the new data suggest that neurons in different parts of the brain express fundamentally different genetic programs during development, while nearby neurons in different layers of the cortex are surprisingly similar in their gene expression.

    The authors say the new paper is the first step in a larger effort to build a comprehensive atlas of genetically-defined cell types in the human brain. Kriegstein’s team recently received a 5-year $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) BRAIN Initiative to expand this effort, and to make the resulting data available publicly to all in the field through an interactive data browser built in collaboration with colleagues at UC Santa Cruz.

    “This study focused on the development of the neocortex, but we aim to analyze multiple brain regions and developmental stages to achieve a more comprehensive atlas of cell types in the developing human brain,” Kriegstein said. “It’s still a fundamentally open question how many cell types there are in the brain, which clearly has more cellular diversity than any other organ.”

    “We hope this atlas will be a roadmap for the field to explore the relationship between specific cell types, signaling pathways, receptors, and the physiological function of brain circuits,” Kriegstein added. “For example, there is a huge amount of interest and excitement globally in growing cerebral organoids” — miniature brain-like organs that can be studied in laboratory experiments — “from stem cells to model human brain development and disease mechanisms. Our brain development atlas will serve as a much-needed framework to calibrate these organoids against the real human brain.”


  7. Study examines brain activity and anxiety symptoms in youth with autism spectrum disorder

    December 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wiley press release:

    The error-related negativity (ERN) is a brain signal response to errors that is thought to reflect threat sensitivity and has been implicated in anxiety disorders in individuals without autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A new Autism Research study has revealed that the ERN is related to social anxiety symptoms — specifically performance fears — in youth with ASD.

    The findings suggest that heightened threat sensitivity may be characteristic of people with ASD who exhibit social fearfulness. Those with more severe ASD symptoms and/or lower verbal abilities may have difficulty identifying or communicating their performance anxieties. Therefore, the ERN may provide important and perhaps otherwise inaccessible information on how these individuals experience internal sources of threat.

    “This study, led by my graduate student, Tamara Rosen, clarifies and focuses inconsistencies in previous research on the unique way error processing manifests and can impact anxiety symptoms in individuals with ASD,” said senior author Dr. Matthew Lerner, of Stony Brook University. “These findings can help guide and pinpoint efforts to diagnose and treat the substantial co-occurring anxiety experienced by many people with ASD.”


  8. Study suggests odors that carry social cues seem to affect volunteers on the autism spectrum differently

    December 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Weizmann Institute of Science press release:

    Autism typically involves the inability to read social cues. We most often associate this with visual difficulty in interpreting facial expression, but new research at the Weizmann Institute of Science suggests that the sense of smell may also play a central role in autism. As reported in Nature Neuroscience, Weizmann Institute of Science researchers show that people on the autism spectrum have different — and even opposite — reactions to odors produced by the human body. These odors are ones that we are unaware of smelling, but which are, nonetheless, a part of the nonverbal communication that takes place between people, and which have been shown to affect our moods and behavior. Their findings may provide a unique window on autism, including, possibly, on the underlying developmental malfunctions in the disorder.

    Researchers in the lab of Prof. Noam Sobel in the Institute’s Neurobiology Department investigate, among other things, the smells that announce such emotions as happiness, fear or aggression to others. Although this sense is not our primary sense, as it is in many other mammals, we still subliminally read and react to certain odors. For example “smelling fear,” even if we cannot consciously detect its odor, is something we may do without thinking. Since this is a form of social communication, Sobel and members of his lab wondered whether it might be disrupted in a social disorder like autism.

    To conduct their experiments, Sobel and lab members Yaara Endevelt-Shapira and Ofer Perl, together with other members of his lab, devised a series of experiments with a group of participants on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum who volunteered for the study. To begin with, the researchers tested the ability of both autistic and control volunteers to identify smells that can be consciously detected, including human smells like sweat. There was no significant difference between the groups at this stage, meaning the sense of smell in the autistic participants was not significantly different from that of controls.

    Two groups were then exposed to either to the “smell of fear” or to a control odor. The smell of fear was sweat collected from people taking skydiving classes, and control odor was sweat from the same people, only this time it had been collected when they were just exercising — without feeling fear.

    This is where differences emerged: Although neither group reported detecting dissimilarities between the two smells, their bodies reacted to each in a different way. In the control group, smelling the fear-induced sweat produced measurable increases in the fear response, for example in skin conductivity, while the everyday sweat did not. In the autistic men, fear-induced sweat lowered their fear responses, while the odor of “calm sweat” did the opposite: It raised their measurable anxiety levels.

    Next, the group created talking robotic mannequins that emitted different odors through their nostrils. These mannequins gave the volunteers, who were unaware of the olfactory aspect of the experiment, different tasks to conduct. Using mannequins enabled the researchers to have complete control over the social cues — odor-based or other — that the subjects received. The tasks were designed to evaluate the level of trust that the volunteers placed in the mannequins — and here, too, the behavior of autistic volunteers was the opposite of the control group: They displayed more trust in the mannequin that emitted the fear-induced odor and less in the one that smelled “calmer.”

    In continuing experiments, the researchers asked whether other subliminal “social odors” have a different impact in autism than in control groups. In one, the volunteers were exposed to sudden loud noises during their sessions while at the same time they were also exposed to a potentially calming component of body-odor named hexadecanal. Another automatic fear response — blinking — was recorded using electrodes above the muscles of the eye. Indeed, the blink response in the control group was weaker when they were exposed to hexadecanal, while for those in the autistic group this response was stronger with hexadecanal.

    In other words, the autistic volunteers in the experiment did not display an inability to read the olfactory social cues in smell, but rather they misread them. Sobel and his group think that this unconscious difference may point to a deeper connection between our sense of smell and early development. Research in recent years has turned up smell receptors like those in our nasal passages in all sorts of other places in our bodies — from our brains to our uteri. It has been suggested that these play a role in development, among other things. In other words, it is possible that the sensing of subtle chemical signals may go awry at crucial stages in the brain’s development in autism. “We are still speculating, at this point,” says Sobel, “but we are hoping that further research in our lab and others will clarify both the function of these unconscious olfactory social cues and their roots in such social disorders as autism.”

     


  9. Mothers of teens with autism report higher levels of stress, but optimism can be a buffer

    December 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – Riverside press release:

    Anyone who has ever survived being a teenager should be well aware that parenting a teenager can be no easy feat. But factor in a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or intellectual disability (ID), and you’ll likely have the recipe for a unique set of challenges to the entire family unit.

    According to autism expert Jan Blacher, a distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside, the effects of those challenges went largely understudied for years while medical professionals blamed mothers of children diagnosed with ASD for their kids’ disorders.

    Beginning in the 1950s, doctors turned to psychiatrist Leo Kanner’s “refrigerator mother” theory as evidence that a lack of maternal warmth could essentially cause autism. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s when psychologist Bernard Rimland, among others, began to discredit Kanner’s theory, instead popularizing the idea that autism could be rooted in neurological development, or even genetics.

    Decades later, the race to find autism-linked genes continues. But it doesn’t yet benefit families of kids with ASD, said Blacher and her research colleague, UCLA’s Bruce L. Baker.

    Within those families, the impacts of raising children with autism hit mothers especially hard, resulting in what Blacher and Baker refer to as “collateral effects.”

    In a study recently published online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, the researchers found that mothers of teenagers with ASD or ID reported higher levels of stress and other negative psychological symptoms — think depression or anxiety — than mothers of teenagers with typical development, or TD.

    Those levels climbed even higher when teenagers with ASD or ID also showed signs of clinical-level disruptive behavior disorders.

    To find out how such disorders affected mothers, Blacher and Baker surveyed 160 13-year-olds and their families. Eighty-four of the study’s teenage participants were classified as having typical development, or TD; 48 as having ASD; and 28 as having ID.

    As the director of UCR’s SEARCH (Support, Education, Advocacy, Resources, Community, and Hope) Family Autism Resource Center, Blacher works with kids of all ages with ASD. She said this study, however, is special because it focuses on a pool of adolescents who are the same age.

    “Usually when studies have looked at the impacts of autism on families, the children involved have reflected wide ranges of ages,” she said. “Here, we’ve eliminated the variance related to developmental stage.”

    Blacher and Baker first assessed mothers and their 13-year-olds during in-person visits at their research site, and later asked mothers to complete separate questionnaires privately to measure youth behavior problems and parental well-being.

    “ASD group mothers scored highest on each of the two distress indicators,” the researchers wrote, adding that ASD group mothers’ levels of stress and psychological symptoms did not differ significantly from those of ID group mothers.

    The findings harken back to research demonstrating that parents of children with ASD have reported levels of stress consistent with those of individuals who experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

    What’s more, mothers’ levels of parenting-related stress and other psychological symptoms were amplified by the presence of one or more clinical-level behavior disorders, Blacher and Baker said.

    “The most common disruptive behavior disorder is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, but children with autism can also show signs of oppositional defiant disorder, depression, and anxiety,” Blacher said. “The disorders that are most disruptive to parents are those we describe as ‘acting out’ disorders and involve behaviors like not following rules, hitting, screaming, arguing, lashing out, and breaking things.”

    Still, the researchers emphasized that parents who face childrearing challenges need not resign themselves to lifetimes of mounting stress. The mothers they studied who demonstrated more resilience had one thing in common: an optimistic outlook on life.

    Using the Life Orientation Test, which assesses individuals’ optimism or pessimism, Blacher and Baker found that mothers who were more optimistic — believing that good rather than bad things would happen to them — experienced fewer negative impacts associated with parenting a child with ASD or ID and comorbid behavior disorders.

    In those cases, a more positive outlook on life became a buffer against parenting-related stressors.

    “It’s in the face of stress when optimism really becomes important,” Blacher said. “A mom that has a high level of optimism is going to be able to better weather stress and be better prepared mentally for the challenges ahead.”


  10. Researchers develop video game that improves balance in youth with autism

    December 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Wisconsin-Madison press release:

    Playing a video game that rewards participants for holding various “ninja” poses could help children and youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improve their balance, according to a recent study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders led by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    Balance challenges are more common among people with ASD compared to the broader population, says study lead author Brittany Travers, and difficulties with balance and postural stability are commonly thought to relate to more severe ASD symptoms and impaired activities in daily living.

    “We think this video game-based training could be a unique way to help individuals with ASD who have challenges with their balance address these issues,” says Travers, an investigator at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center and an assistant professor of kinesiology.

    In this pilot study — the largest ever to look at the effects of balance training on individuals with ASD — 29 participants between the ages of 7 and 17 with ASD completed a six-week training program playing a video game developed by the researchers.

    By the end of the program, study participants showed significant improvements in not only their in-game poses but also their balance and posture outside of the game environment.

    According to Travers, balance improvements outside the video game context are especially important. “Our participants are incredibly clever when it comes to finding ways to beat video games!” she says. “We wanted to make sure that the improvements we were seeing were truly balance-related and not limited to the video game.”

    Ten out of 11 study participants who completed a post-game questionnaire also said they enjoyed playing the video games.

    “We always aim to make the interventions fun,” says Travers. “We have couched a rigorous exercise (by the end of some gaming sessions, participants had been standing on one foot for 30 minutes) in a video game format, so we were delighted to hear that the participants enjoyed the game.”

    Travers developed the video game with help from Andrea Mason, professor of kinesiology at UW-Madison, Leigh Ann Mrotek, professor of kinesiology at UW-Oshkosh and Anthony Ellertson, program director of gaming and interactive technology at Boise State University.

    The gaming system uses a Microsoft Kinect camera and a Nintendo Wii balance board connected to software developed on a Windows platform using Adobe Air.

    “Players see themselves on the screen doing different ‘ninja’ poses and postures, and they are rewarded for doing those poses and postures; that’s how they advance in the game,” says Travers.

    The study also explored individual differences that might predict who would benefit most from this type of video game-based balance training.

    For example, the study showed that participants with some characteristics, such as ritualistic behaviors (like the need to follow a set routine around mealtimes or bedtime) did not benefit as much from the video game as those without these behaviors.

    On the other hand, some characteristics, such as body mass index or IQ, did not influence whether a participant benefited from balance training.

    “There is a lot of variability in the clinical profile of ASD, and it’s unlikely that there will be a one-size-fits-all approach for balance training that helps all individuals with ASD,” says Travers.

    Researchers are working to make the game more accessible to different individuals within the autism spectrum. “We already have some features that help — the game has very little verbal instruction, which should make it more accessible to individuals who are minimally verbal,” says Travers. “Ultimately, we would like to move this video game-based training outside the lab.”