Researchers Make Progress in Autism Studies


Over the past year, promising studies have been published dealing with autism and early intervention, pharmacologic treatment, early diagnosis, and delayed speaking abilities.

Over the past year, promising studies have been published dealing with autism and early intervention, pharmacologic treatment, early diagnosis, and delayed speaking abilities.

Despite autism’s prevalence, we still know little about the condition’s risk factors and causes, much less effective ways to treat and prevent it. However, as indicated by a list of advances published in the Huffington Post, researchers have taken significant steps over the past year toward answering the many questions surrounding spectrum disorders. Here is a selection of 4 studies that offer grounds for a bit of optimism:

Early Intervention and Brain Activity

Results of a study published in the November 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggest that toddlers who participate in early intervention programs can improve behavior and increase brain activity.

The researchers compared the effects of the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), an intervention program for autistic toddlers, with traditional autism therapy in 48 autistic children aged 18 to 30 months. The toddlers were randomly assigned to receive either ESDM therapy or therapy offered in their communities for about 20 hours a week for 2 years. Children in the ESDM group had greater improvements in IQ, language ability, and behavior than children in the community-based therapy group.

At the end of the 2 years, the researchers analyzed brain activity in both groups of children and compared the results with tests from children without autism. Children in the ESDM group displayed stronger brain responses to social information than children in the community group. The researchers also found that when children in the ESDM group were shown pictures of women’s faces, their brain activity patterns were almost identical to those of children without autism.

The study gives hope that early intervention programs focused on social interactions can improve behavior as well as brain function in autistic children.

Medication Trials

An early clinical trial of arbaclofen, a medicine to treat symptoms of autism, also produced promising results. The study, published in the September 2012 issue of Science Translational Medicine, included 63 children and adults with fragile X syndrome. Many participants were also diagnosed with autism. The researchers found that patients with severe social impairment who received the treatment showed significant improvements in social avoidance and social skills. Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization, is funding more research on the efficacy of arbaclofen as well as its possible side effects.

Earlier Diagnosis

Researchers have also learned more about the early development of autism and how it may be diagnosed before children exhibit outward symptoms of the disorder. Scientists involved with the Infant Brain Imaging Study found differences in the brain pathways of infants who later developed autism. The study, published in the June 2012 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, followed the brain development of 92 infants with older autistic siblings. Using diffusion tensor imaging, the researchers recorded 3-dimensional images of brain development when the subjects were 6, 12, and 24 months old.

At 24 months of age, 28 of the toddlers were diagnosed with autism based on behavioral assessments. Differences in white-matter development suggesting weakened brain development during infancy were seen in children who went on to develop autism compared with their peers who did not develop autism. More research is needed to understand the causes behind these differences in brain development, but the study may help lead to identification of autism risk before symptoms appear as well as to future treatments.

Improved Speaking Abilities

Another study raises the hope that children diagnosed with autism will be able to accomplish more than is commonly thought. Parents are often told that autistic children are unlikely to ever speak if they have not begun to do so by age 4 or 5, but results from a study published in the April 1, 2013, issue of Pediatrics suggest otherwise.

Researchers at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders in Baltimore studied 535 autistic children aged 8 to 17. These children all showed severe language delays at age 4, ranging from using single words or phrases without verbs to not speaking at all. The researchers found that most of the children did develop language skills. Almost half of participants became fluent speakers, and 70% could speak in simple phrases.

Looking Forward

More research is needed, but these studies show significant improvements in our understanding of autism. With continued research, scientists, doctors, and health care professionals will be better able to improve the lives of those diagnosed with autism.

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