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Monday January 30, 2012 Reader Supported
Study Finds Early Signs of Autism in Baby Brains
By Kate Kelland
Reuters - Children who develop autism already show signs of different brain responses in their first year of life, scientists said on Thursday in a study that may in the future help doctors diagnose the disorder earlier.
British researchers studied 104 babies at six to 10 months and then again at three-years-old, and found that those who went on to develop autism had unusual patterns of brain activity in response to eye contact with another person.
The findings, published online today in Current Biology, suggest direct brain measures might help predict the future risk of autism in babies as young as six months old, said Dr. Mark Johnson director of the Center for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck College, University of London, who led the study.
Characteristic autistic behavior tends not to emerge before the age of two years and firm diagnoses are usually only made after this age.
"Because there are no good behavioral signs at this young age (under one year), we wanted to see whether, by measuring the activity of the brain in a more direct way, we might be able to pick up earlier warning signs," Dr. Johnson said in a telephone interview.
His team looked at babies at greater risk of developing autism later in life because they had an older brother or sister with the condition.
The researchers used passive sensors placed on the scalp to register brain activity while the babies viewed faces that switched from looking at them to looking away.
The babies who were later found to be typically developing children showed a clear difference in brain activity in response to a face looking towards them compared to a face looking away.
In contrast, most of the babies who later went on to develop autism symptoms showed much less of a difference in brain activity when someone made eye contact and then looked away.
The researchers cautioned, however, that the predictive markers were not 100% accurate, as the study did find cases of babies who showed no differences in brain function and were not later diagnosed, and vice versa.
Dr. Johnson said the results were a first step towards earlier autism diagnosis, but added that more research was needed to confirm and strengthen the brain activity markers.
Adolescents With Autism Spend Free Time Using Solitary, Screen-Based Media
ScienceDaily — Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) tend to be fascinated by screen-based technology. A new study by a University of Missouri researcher found that adolescents with autism spend the majority of their free time using non-social media, including television and video-games.
"Even though parents and clinicians have often observed that children with ASD tend to be preoccupied with screen-based media, ours is the first large-scale study to explore this issue," said Micah Mazurek, assistant professor in the School of Health Professions and the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. "We found that 64 percent of adolescents with ASD spent most of their free time watching TV and playing video and computer games. These rates were much higher than among those with other types of disabilities. On the other hand, adolescents with ASD were less likely to spend time using email and social media."
The majority of youths with ASD (64.2 percent) spend most of their free time using solitary, or non-social, screen-based media (television and video games) while only 13.2 percent spend time on socially interactive media (email, internet chatting).
This is the first study to examine the prevalence of screen-based media use within a large nationally representative sample of youths with ASD. Data were compiled from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2, a group of more than 1,000 adolescents enrolled in special education. The study includes youths with ASD, learning and intellectual disabilities, and speech and language impairments.
The findings affirm that solitary screen-based media use represents a primary and preferred activity for a large percentage of youths with ASD, Mazurek said. Previously, researchers found that excessive use of these media in typically developing children is detrimental to outcomes, with regard to academic performance, social engagement, behavioral regulation, attention and health.
"This is an important issue for adolescents with ASD and their families. Studies have shown that excessive use of TV and video games can have negative long-term effects for typically developing children," Mazurek said. "In future studies, we need to learn more about both positive and negative aspects of media use in children with ASD. We need to look for ways to capitalize on strengths and interests in screen-based technology."
Mazurek is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Psychology. The study was co-authored by Paul Shattuck, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University; Mary Wagner, principal scientist at SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute; and Benjamin Cooper, a graduate student at the Brown School.
The study is published in the current issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. The research was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Organization for Autism Research.
• • •
Scientists Link Evolved, Mutated Gene Module to Syndromic Autism
ScienceDaily — A team led by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine reports that newly discovered mutations in an evolved assembly of genes cause Joubert syndrome, a form of syndromic autism.
The findings are published in the January 26 online issue of Science Express.
Joubert syndrome is a rare, recessive brain condition characterized by malformation or underdevelopment of the cerebellum and brainstem. The disease is due specifically to alterations in cellular primary cilia -- antenna-like structures found on most cells. The consequence is a range of distinct physical and cognitive disabilities, including poor muscle control, and mental retardation. Up to 40 percent of Joubert syndrome patients meet clinical criteria for autism, as well as other neurocognitive disorders, so it is considered a syndromic form of autism.
The cause or causes of Joubert syndrome are not well-understood. Researchers looked at mutations in the TMEM216 gene, which had previously been linked to the syndrome. However, only half of the expected Joubert syndrome patients exhibit TMEM216 gene mutations; the other half did not. Using genomic sequencing, the research team, led by Joseph G. Gleeson, MD, professor of neurosciences and pediatrics at UC San Diego, broadened their inquiry and discovered a second culprit: mutations in a neighboring gene called TMEM138.
"It is extraordinarily rare for two adjacent genes to cause the same human disease," said Gleeson. "The mystery that emerged from this was whether these two adjacent, non-duplicated genes causing indistinguishable disease have functional connections at the gene or protein level."
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• • •
Talking Things Through in Your Head May Help Autism
By Kate Kelland
Reuters - Teaching children with autism to "talk things through" in their heads may help them solve tricky day-to-day tasks and could increase the chances of them living independent lives when they grow up, British scientists said on Wednesday.
Psychologists who studied adults with autism found that their mechanism for using "inner speech" -- or talking things through in your head -- is intact, but they don't always use it in the same way as typically developing people do.
The researchers found that the tendency to "think in words" is also strongly linked to the extent of a person's communication skills, which are rooted in early childhood.
The results suggest teaching autistic children how to develop inner speech skills may help them cope with daily tasks later in life. It also suggests children with autism may do better at school if they are encouraged to learn their daily timetable verbally rather than using visual plans, which is currently a common approach.
"Most people will 'think in words' when trying to solve problems, which helps with planning or particularly complicated tasks," said David Williams of Durham University's department of psychology, who led the study.
Typically developing children tend to talk out loud to guide themselves through tricky tasks, and only from about seven years old do they talk to themselves in their heads to try to solve problems, he said. How good people are at it is partly determined by their communication experiences as a young child.
Williams said children with autism often miss out on the early communicative exchanges, which may explain their tendency not to use inner speech when they are older. He said the lack of inner speech use might also contribute to some of the repetitive behaviors that are common in people with autism.
"Children with autism probably aren't doing this thinking in their heads, but are continuing on with a visual thinking strategy," Williams said in a telephone interview.
"So this is the time, at around six or seven years old, that these teaching methods would be most helpful."
The study, conducted by researchers at Durham, Bristol and City University London and scheduled to be published in an upcoming issue of the Development and Psychopathology journal, involved 15 adults with high-functioning autism and 16 neurotypical adults for comparison.
The volunteers were asked to complete a test of planning ability for which typical people would normally use "thinking in words" strategies.
When the two groups were asked to do the task while also repeating out loud a certain word -- such as "Tuesday" or "Thursday" -- designed to distract them, the control group found the task much harder, while the autistic group were not bothered by the distraction.
"In the people with autism, it had no effect whatsoever," Williams explained. This suggests that, unlike neurotypical adults, participants with autism do not normally use inner speech to help themselves plan.
• • •
Parents Divided Over Childhood Immunizations
Body and Mind
As a new mom, Becky Mack had her mind on a lot of things other than routine childhood immunizations, so she didn’t hesitate to have her daughter vaccinated on schedule.
As she settled into her maternal role, however, she became aware of the ongoing debate about the safety of vaccines and began reading as much information as she could. What she read scared her enough to opt out of vaccines for her next child until she could do more research and feel comfortable about her choice.
“By the time our fourth child came around, I had read so much that I felt OK — not great — but OK with giving her a few of the vaccines that have been around for a long time — polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis,” said the 29-year-old Carroll Twp. mom. “Our current pediatrician is a lot better at speaking with us about the vaccines, but I still don’t feel like it’s enough information to make me want to agree to everything."
Mack is like many parents who, according to recent research, are concerned about the safety of vaccines. There’s been enough fear that KidsHealth.org — an arm of the Nemours Foundation, which works on issues of children’s health — names postponing or skipping vaccines as an issue to watch in 2012.
Polls say one in four parents still think vaccines are linked to autism, despite findings that debunked the 1998 study that made those claims. Parents are also concerned about mercury in the vaccines even though mercury use is limited.
In the midst of the debate comes some alarming news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Despite the availability of a vaccine, there were hundreds of new cases of measles in 2011. That’s the largest spike in the past 15 years, and most were in people never immunized. All it will take for these diseases to come back, experts say, is enough parents opting out of the vaccines for their children, threatening the “herd immunity” that is protecting the unvaccinated now.
Area pediatricians say they have noticed a definite increase in parental concern, but overall only about 5 percent of parents are requesting an altered vaccination schedule and even fewer are opting out altogether.
“The problem with vaccines is that they’re so good that people forget about what we’re protecting against — polio, meningitis, pertussis,” said Dr. Anthony Arlotti, pediatrician at Ryder, Barnes and Associates in Camp Hill, a service of Holy Spirit Health System. “None of the diseases we vaccinate against are eradicated in the world. Especially with the amount of traveling we do now, people are going places where the vaccine status may not be as good."
Dr. Cynthia Elsner, a pediatrician with PinnacleHealth Pediatric Associates in Harrisburg, said she has seen firsthand the difference the vaccines have made since she began her residency 22 years ago. “You don’t see the disastrous effects of pneumococcal meningitis or H Flu meningitis,” she said. “Many parents have no idea how bad these diseases were."
The issue brings passionate responses from parents, no matter which side of the fence they fall on.
“This is a hot topic between moms, but I have found that it is usually not one that can remain rational on either end. There is so much emotion involved with this monumental decision for your child’s health,” Mack said.
Kendra Yodfat, an East Hanover Twp. mother of two children, 10 months old and 4 years old, said she can’t understand parents who don’t vaccinate.
“I think it’s almost dangerous not to do it for society as a whole because you’re opening up holes where your children and other people’s children can potentially get very sick,” she said. “You’re worried about autism, but what if your child gets polio?"
Yodfat, 35, an advanced practice nurse, cites “clear, scientific evidence” that vaccines are safe and cautions parents against believing things they read on the Internet or hear from celebrities.
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CDC Finds 'Pseudo-Outbreak' Of Whooping Cough
A cluster of suspected whooping cough cases in Colorado was actually most likely a "pseudo-outbreak," according to an investigation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The cases, reported in the summer of 2009, seem to have been mistakenly diagnosed when patients' test samples became contaminated at one medical clinic. However, the CDC says, a cluster of whooping cough cases from the winter before likely was a true outbreak.
The pseudo-outbreak does not diminish the importance of the "real" cases of whooping cough that continue to crop up each year, said lead researcher Sema Mandal of the CDC.
"We've had strong evidence of other outbreaks," Mandal told Reuters Health, citing a 2010 outbreak in California as an example.
Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a bacterial infection that causes uncontrollable, severe coughing. Worldwide, it infects between 30 million and 50 million people a year, and kills about 300,000 -- mostly children in the developing world.
In the U.S., most children are immunized against whooping cough with the DTaP vaccine, which is given as a series of shots starting at the age of 2 months.
But cases still occur. According to the CDC, 27,550 cases were reported nationwide in 2010, with many more probably going unreported. There were also 27 deaths, nearly all in infants younger than one year.
California saw an outbreak of more than 9,000 cases, including 10 infant deaths, that year.
But in the Colorado outbreak, researchers suspected something was amiss.
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• • •
FDA Doctors, Scientists Claim Illegal Surveillance
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration secretly monitored the private emails of staff doctors and scientists who alleged the agency was approving medical devices that posed a danger to patients, according to federal court documents.
In a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Washington, six current and former FDA employees also claim the agency sought to repress warnings about potential corruption in device reviews by retaliating against whistleblowers who passed information to Congress and the news media.
FDA spokeswoman Erica Jefferson said the agency does not comment on ongoing or pending litigation.
FDA computers warn users, when they log on, that no one on the system has a reasonable expectation of privacy and that the government may intercept any data at any time for any lawful government purpose, the Washington Post reported on Monday.
After FDA employees aired their concerns to the incoming Obama administration in January 2009, the agency began intercepting the emails they sent to congressional staff via government computers, using private Google and Yahoo email accounts, the documents allege.
The FDA also used spyware to capture electronic snapshots of staff computer screens, which the lawsuit says allowed the agency to obtain privately stored whistleblower reports and identify others involved in whistleblower activities.
The doctors and scientists maintain that own their actions were legal but that the FDA surveillance violated their constitutional rights to privacy and had a chilling effect on whistleblowing activities. The alleged surveillance lasted for two years.
• • •
Naperville, Ill Police Looking For Missing Autistic Man
Charles Richard Catlett / photo from Naperville police
Naperville police have issued an alert for an autistic man who has been missing since early Monday morning from the western suburb’s south side.
Charles Richard Catlett, 21, is described as white with brown hair and blue eyes, 5-foot-9 and 130 pounds. He was last seen early Monday morning wearig a red, snowboarder-type jacket, possibly carrying a laptop computer.
Anyone with information should call 911 or Naperville police at (630) 420-6147.
• • •
New Hampshire Principal Saves Autistic Student From Drowning
Gonic School Principal Gwen Rhodes rescued an autistic student from the Cocheco River Wednesday, jilting words like “hero” and insisting that her actions were just part of the job; no different from what educators do each day.
Around 11 a.m. Wednesday morning, EMS crews were called to the school for a report of a student running into the woods. The autistic student crossed a part of the river onto a peninsula, and eventually slipped. Rhodes and another educator had been following the student, and Rhodes responded when she heard the child scream. Recounting the scene, Rhodes said: “He looked at me and he said ‘help.’ I said his name and said ‘don’t move’ and just then the ice cracked and at that point he’s going into the water, so I just reacted to get closer to him."
The water was freezing, but the depth allowed the two to stand. Rhodes swam with the student upstream, to a tree, and slowly began to push the student out of the water and up onto the bank.
“I gave him directions step by step as we carefully worked our way up,” Rhodes said. “He did everything I asked him to do."
They left the woods and were met by first responders. Both were taken to Frisbie Memorial Hospital and treated for non-life-threatening injuries, primarily exposure. Instead of accepting the lauds and praise, Rhodes directed attention paid toward her heroism to education and educators as a whole instead.
“I think what I want people to know is I did what I did because I was in a circumstance where I had to think quickly,” Rhodes said. “Which is what an educator does every day."
This is Rhodes’ fourth year as a principal, and she was a teacher herself for many years before that. She has never had to quell a situation like this in her career, but she doesn’t see it as very different from the daily grind.
“We are always making decisions and they’re all tough. This one just happens to be dramatic,” Rhodes said. “We try to put plans in place so these kind of incidents don’t happen, but we can’t predict every possible thing. Sometimes the unexpected happens."
• • •
Free Online Safety Conference Offered
It was announced today that the National Autism Association and AutismCollege.com are teaming up in February to offer a free web conference for caregivers of those diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The web conference series entitled Autism Safety and Crisis Prevention will feature top autism experts covering sensitive safety topics that include sexual-abuse risk reduction, bullying prevention, suicide ideation, wandering prevention, and prevention of risks associated with restraint and seclusion.
Historically, medical literature has maintained that ASD does not affect life expectancy; however, a 2001 California study found elevated death rates in ASD related to several causes that included accidents such as suffocation and drowning. “Safety is a primary concern for those on the spectrum and their parents, yet there is very little practical information out there,” says Chantal Sicile-Kira, author and founder of Autism College. “Autism College is happy to partner with the National Autism Association to help empower parents with information they need to protect their children and teens."
The Autism Safety and Crisis Prevention webinar will be available to caregivers through February. To register, visit www.autismcollege.com.
Webinar presenters will offer real-life strategies to address multiple safety topics, followed by a question-and-answer session. “Even those families who currently do not face safety challenges can learn valuable information through this free safety online conference,” says NAA President Wendy Fournier. “Being aware of the issues and armed with information is critical for all parents."
Autism Safety and Crisis Prevention Webinar Schedule:
- Saturday, February 11, 8:15am- 9:45am PST, Dr. Nora Baladerian, Ph.D. will present “How Can Parents Reduce the Risk of Sexual Abuse of Their Child or Young Adult?"
- Saturday, February 11, 10:00am-11:30am PST, Dr. Lori Ernsperger will discuss “The 3 R's to Bullying Prevention for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Recognize, Respond, and Report."
- Wednesday, February 15, 6:00pm-7:30pm PST, Dr. Joshua Feder will discuss “The Problem of Depression and Suicidal Ideation in Autism and Related Disorders."
- Saturday, February 18, 8:15am-9:45am PST, Wendy Fournier of the NAA will discuss Wandering Prevention and Response.
- Saturday, February 18, 10:00am- 11:30am PST, Pat Amos, M.A. will discuss “Preventing and Eliminating the Use of Restraints and Seclusion."
• • •
Comprehensive $5 Million Autistic Center to Open in Howard Beach
Andrew Baumann (left), the head of New York Familes for Autistic Children, and his autistic son Anthony, 18, in the Howard Beach building that is to become one of the largest comprehensive Autism centers in Queens. Nicholas Fevelo for New York Daily News
By Clare Trapasso / New York Daily News
A Queens group plans to transform a Howard Beach Chinese restaurant into a $5 million comprehensive center for autistic children and adults.
The New York Families for Autistic Children facility is expected to be one of the largest of its kind in the borough, said President and Chief Executive Officer Andrew Baumann.
Renovations on the building are slated to begin next week. The center is to open June 1.
• • •
Concern Over Changes to Autism Criteria Unfounded, Says APA
From Medscape Medical News, Deborah Brauser
Dr. Bryan King
Concerns that proposed changes to autism criteria in the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) will exclude many individuals from diagnosis and treatment are unfounded, says the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
These changes would include merging diagnoses currently listed separately in the DSM-IV, such as autistic disorder, Asperger's disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (NOS). The DSM-5 proposal calls for incorporating these disorders under a single umbrella category of "autism spectrum disorder."
"The proposed criteria will lead to more accurate diagnosis and will help physicians and therapists design better treatment interventions for children who suffer from autism spectrum disorder," said James Scully, MD, medical director of the APA, in a release.
"While final decisions are still months away, the recommendations reflect the work of dozens of the nation's top scientific and research minds and are supported by more than a decade of intensive study analysis," the APA states in the same release.
Although some organizations and clinicians have expressed concerns that the new criteria will result in the exclusion of many individuals previously diagnosed with the disorder, particularly those with high functioning forms of autism, Neurodevelopmental Work Group member Bryan H. King, MD, told Medscape Medical News that that will not be the case.
"I think it is very unlikely that there's going to be a group left out in the cold," said Dr. King, who is also a professor and vice chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and director of the Seattle Children's Autism Center at Seattle Children's Hospital.
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Note: The opinions expressed in COMMENTARY are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Schafer Autism Report.
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