Neuroscience and Society: Autism

When we’re trying to help people who have troubles due to autism spectrum disorders, one of the first challenges is definition: What does “autism” mean?

“Autism was and is still currently defined by behaviors,” Dana Alliance member Barry Gordon said, as researchers haven’t yet found solid biomarkers or other internal signals to identify it. “Whenever you read about autism, you might want to dig into what definitions they go into,” he said during a recent discussion at the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) in Washington, DC.

Autism -Dawson - Oct2018Even definitions by behavior vary. For example, fellow presenter Daniel Geschwind said, problems with language used to be part of the diagnosis, but now doctors and other caregivers usually only count differences in social behavior and the presence of “repetitive-restrictive” behavior (like hand-flapping or always needing to do activities in the same order).

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Free Public Event on Autism

Autism and the Brain_Oct 2018.png
Autism is a mysterious and puzzling disorder. In 1943, American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner first published a paper describing 11 children who were highly intelligent but displayed “a powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness.” He called this condition “early infantile autism.” Prior to that time, people with autism were simply called insane. Autism is now officially known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and, while there is a wide variation in the nature and severity of its signs, people with ASD typically have difficulty with social communication and interaction, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. Continue reading

The Science of Autism is the Story of Real People

Guest post by Ted Altschuler, Ph.D.

Ruth had stopped doubting herself the morning she saw Joe do a jigsaw puzzle upside down. For some time, she had been nagged by a feeling that he was not like her other children in some crucial way. Six months earlier, Joe had stopped speaking, even though, up to that point, he had seemed to be developing normally…

And then there were these puzzles. He was working on one just then, a map of the United States whose parts were sprawled, like him, all over the kitchen floor and through the doorway into the living room. He was getting it done: New Hampshire met Maine, and New Mexico snapped in next to Arizona. But he was getting it done fast, almost too fast, Ruth felt, for a two-year-old. On a hunch, she knelt down to Joe’s level and pulled the map apart, scattering the pieces. She also, deliberately, turned each piece upside down, so that only the gray-brown backing was showing. Then she watched what Joe did with them.

He seemed not even to notice. Pausing only for a moment, Joe peered into the pile of pieces, then reached for two of them. They were a match. He immediately snapped them together, backside-up, between his knees on the floor. It was his new starting point. From there he kept going, building, in lifeless monochrome, out of fifty pieces, a picture of nothing.

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AAAS: Brain-changing power of music prompts calls for more education, therapy

Growing evidence that music training can enhance certain mental abilities, can alleviate the symptoms of learning disorders, and can restore lost functions in people with neurological damage has prompted calls to increase school music programs and therapeutic treatments.

At a press conference Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Nina Kraus, a communications disorder professor at Northwestern University, and Gottfried Schlaug, an associate professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, summarized recent research outlining the profound ability of music to enhance or restore brain pathways and the implications of those findings for health and education.

Kraus pointed out that music is reflected literally by the brain. After hearing a sound, a person's brain waves come to mirror that melody, she said, playing several pairs of music sequences and brain waves to demonstrate. But music exerts its most profound effects after extensive training, by increasing not just the ability to learn and play music but also facility with memory, attention, and pattern recognition. In fact, she said, her work suggests that intensive music training may be key to treating or ameliorating childhood learning disabilities, as it greatly enhances the abilities that suffer the most in those conditions.

In a recent study, for instance, she found that trained musicians have a much greater ability to discern speech in noisy situations, such as crowded restaurants or bars, than those without any musical experience, a kind of pattern-recognition task some children also have great difficulty with. The finding, which appeared in the December 2009 issue of the journal Ear and Hearing, echoes research her group presented at the 2009 Society for Neuroscience meeting showing that trained musicians have enhanced abilities to focus on and memorize sounds, other abilities lacking in people with dyslexia, autism, and related disorders. This suggests, she said, that elementary and secondary schools are making a mistake when they cut out music programs. "The education and remediation possibilities of music training are very encouraging," she said.

Schlaug played several videos showing the power of melodic intonation therapy (MIT) to rewire seriously damaged brains. As we have described previously, MIT is a technique developed for treating nonfluent aphasia, or an inability to speak due to damage, usually from a stroke, to the language-processing regions in the brain's left hemisphere. During the treatment, a music therapist teaches the patient to feel out the melody of specific phrases by tapping his or her hand and then to repeat the phrases aloud in a singsong voice. Typically, the treatment course is intense, consisting of 70 to 80 sessions over several weeks.

The results can be spectacular; most patients, Schlaug said, recover significant amounts of speaking ability, and one patient even felt comfortable enough to make a short public speech. In one particularly compelling video clip, a man went from mumbling nonsense phrases to being able to recite his full mailing address after 75 therapy sessions. "These kinds of music-making therapies are very useful for patients suffering from strokes and other neurological disorders," Schlaug said. "It engages parts of the brain that are not normally engaged and links parts of the brain that are not normally linked."

Although the therapy has shown promising results, it is still in the early stages of testing, Schlaug added. If it pans out, tens of thousands of stroke victims could benefit from the therapy each year in the United States alone. The true challenge then, he said, would be gaining widespread traction for the treatment, by getting therapists to feel comfortable with the oddness of singing with their patients and by ensuring that insurance companies reimburse people for MIT sessions.

Schlaug has been a pioneer in the field of music and the brain studies; some of his research is funded by the Dana Foundation. Mentioned only obliquely in his presentation, for instance, was a four-year study he is helping to conduct that compares the cognitive abilities of children undergoing regular music training with those who are not. Not surprisingly, he and his colleagues have found that, after 15 months, children who practice music showed more improvements in motor skills and melody and rhythm identification tasks related directly to music. But after 30 months, the results seem more in line with those of Kraus and her lab, with the children beginning to show suggestive, though not significant, signs of "far transfer" benefits—increases in most distantly related skills, such as vocabulary and abstract reasoning.

–Aalok Mehta

Autism now affects 1 in 110 children; reasons unknown

It’s difficult to avoid talk of autism
these days. Cases seem to be much more common, news coverage has increased
dramatically in recent years, and if you’re like me, then you probably know at
least one person with the condition (in my case, a good friend’s daughter).

A new government study
now provides solid data suggesting that these are no mere anecdotes. Nearly 1
percent of children now have autism or an autism-related disorder—and no one
knows exactly why.

The study, conducted by the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention
in 2006, confirms other work suggesting
that autism cases have increased significantly in recent years. More research
is needed to ferret out a precise explanation for the rise, according to the
study, but it’s possibly at least partly due to something recently introduced
into the environment.

The findings come from a review of health and education
records from across the U.S.; more than 300,000 8-year-olds—about 8 percent of U.S.
kids that age—were included.

Though exact numbers varied significantly among communities,
on average about 1 in every 110 children had an official psychiatric diagnosis
of an autism-spectrum disorder. Not all groups were affected equally, however.
Boys were four to five times as likely to have an autism diagnosis; the
condition affected 1 in every 70 8-year-old boys but only 1 in every 315 girls.

Less dire was the news about how well children with autism function.
According to the study, less than half suffer from some sort of intellectual
disability—far less than the three-quarters that previous studies had found.
Autism is also being diagnosed earlier on average, offering greater chances for
more potent early treatment, but “delays in identification persisted,” according
to the study.

Catherine Rice, the study’s lead author, said increased
awareness of the condition and better diagnosis seem to be only part of the
reason for the rise. “No single factor explains the changes identified in ASD
prevalence over the time period studied,” she said at a press briefing. “Some
of the increases are due to better detection, particularly among children who
may not have come to attention in the past, including girls, Hispanic children,
and children without cognitive impairment.  However, a simple explanation
is not apparent.” She added that “a true increase in risk cannot be ruled out”;
if confirmed, this would suggest that a recent environmental or societal
trigger is at least partially responsible.

To shed light on these possibilities, the CDC and other
government agencies are now beginning studies to “identify risks and protective
factors for ASDs and other developmental disabilities” during early
development, Rice said.

No one knows just what the follow-up studies will find. But with
prevalence at nearly 1 percent, one thing is clear: Autism can no longer be
considered rare or unusual. Those numbers may not only spur pharmaceutical
companies to invest more in researching potential treatments, they may help
reduce the stigma and obstacles many autistic patients face.

Autism advocacy groups echoed those sentiments, saying the
news was a wake-up call for immediate action. “These new findings reinforce
that autism is an urgent and growing public health crisis that affects most
individuals across their lifespan and demands a commensurate level of action
from both the public and private sectors,” science and advocacy organization Autism
Speaks said in a written statement.
The Autism Society, meanwhile, called
on the government
to address “the pressing need” for community-based
services for people with autism and more research into risk factors and
potential treatments.

-Aalok Mehta

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