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Genetic research reveals pieces of autism puzzle
April 5th, 2012
02:02 PM ET

Genetic research reveals pieces of autism puzzle

As the number of children with autism has increased over the past couple of decades, so have efforts to find causes behind this neurodevelopmental disorder. Research published Wednesday provides new clues about genetic glitches that may contribute to the development of autism among children.

Ten years ago, little was known about the role genetics plays in autism. But improved technology has allowed scientists to delve deeply into DNA to search for answers.

"Ten years ago [it was like] we were looking through binoculars, then we were looking at autism through a microscope, and now it's like looking at it in high definition," says Andy Shih, vice president of scientific affairs for the advocacy group Autism Speaks, who was not involved in the research.

Since the first human genome was sequenced in the early 2000s, researchers have had the opportunity to search for genes that cause the disorder, which affects an estimated 1 in 88 children in the United States.

Researchers were originally searching for a single gene that would cause the disorder, but they now believe it's much more likely that there are multiple genetic mutations that put a child at risk. By studying specific areas of the DNA of families that have a child with autism, scientists have identified approximately 1,000 genes that may be involved.
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Autism's burden reflected in family incomes
March 19th, 2012
12:02 AM ET

Autism's burden reflected in family incomes

Raising children brings financial challenge for many families, but especially for parents of children with autism. And the magnitude of that burden is a lot bigger than you may think.

A new study in the journal Pediatrics finds that overall earnings in families with children with autism are 28% ($17,763) less compared to families whose children do not have health limitations, and 21% ($10,416) less compared to families with children with other health limitations.

The dichotomy is striking in the mothers' income: Mothers of children with an autism spectrum disorder tend to earn 35% less than mothers who have children with different health limitations - in fact, $7189 less - on average. Compared to mothers of children who do not have health limitations, those with autistic children earn 56% less, which translates to an average difference of $14,755. There was no average difference in fathers' incomes, however.

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Brain scans in infants shed light on autism onset
February 17th, 2012
08:58 AM ET

Brain scans in infants shed light on autism onset

New research provides evidence that wiring in the brains of children with autism differs from typically developing children as early as six months of age, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry on Friday.

"This is the earliest study of brain development using neuro-imaging," says Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. "By six months of age, even before the symptoms [of autism] emerge, the brain networks that connect different brain regions do not develop correctly."

Dawson is not only one of the study authors, she's also the Chief Science Officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, which, along with the National Institutes of Health and the Simons Foundation, funded the research. FULL POST


Why the definition of autism matters
January 24th, 2012
03:26 PM ET

Why the definition of autism matters

Editor's note: Dr. Charles Raison, CNNhealth's mental health expert, is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The American Psychiatric Association is in the midst of redesigning a document often called the Bible of Psychiatry. It's known more officially as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM for short.

For practical purposes, including insurance reimbursement, the DSM determines what does and does not qualify as a psychiatric illness in the United States.  Because of this, changes to the document can lead to profound effects on patients’ lives.  Changing criteria can dictate who and who cannot be considered to have a mental illness worthy of treatment... and insurance coverage.

Nowhere have proposed changes to the upcoming edition of the DSM generated more angst, or media coverage, than in the area of autistic disorders.
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Embattled autism study author sues medical journal for defamation
Dr. Andrew Wakefield authored a 1998 study that was retracted by the journal The Lancet.
January 6th, 2012
07:22 PM ET

Embattled autism study author sues medical journal for defamation

A doctor whose research on autism has been discredited by many medical authorities is launching a lawsuit against the British Medical Journal, as well as a freelance journalist and one of the journal's editors.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield is the author of a controversial 1998 autism study and has linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to causing autism. In his lawsuit, he alleges that the British Medical Journal (BMJ), and specifically writer Brian Deer and editor Dr. Fiona Godlee, defamed him. They have made "unfair, incorrect, inaccurate and unjust criticisms of findings previously reported by Dr. Wakefield and 12 other co-authors," a petition filed in Travis County, Texas, states.

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New study suggests autism starts in the womb
November 8th, 2011
06:13 PM ET

New study suggests autism starts in the womb

Children with autism have many more brain cells than typically developing children, researchers have found, supporting previous research that suggests that autism may be caused by something going awry before a baby is born as opposed to something triggering autism in a toddler.

Scientists studied the brains of 13 boys and found those with autism had 67% more brain cells than typically developing boys. They specifically looked at the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex because it's the part that's responsible for social, emotional, communication and language development. Having too many neurons or nerve cells in the part of the brain that controls the very features that children with autism struggle with may explain the origin of autism, the study suggests.

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Spotting autism's unique shape in the brain
September 2nd, 2011
06:15 PM ET

Spotting autism's unique shape in the brain

Diagnosing autism is not easy.  Doctors currently diagnose autism in children by observing behavior.  But researchers at Standford University believe they have developed a way to use brains scans that may help identify autism in children in the future.

Using MRI scans, researchers were able to determine that autistic brains have a unique shape when compared to typically developing brains.

They found that there are significant differences in areas of the brain called the Default Mode Network, a set of brain structures associated with social communication and self-awareness.

A study published Friday in Biological Psychiatry finds that the greater the difference in brain structure, the more severe the case of autism.

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Filed under: ADHD • Autism

More evidence shows autism raises risk for later siblings
August 15th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

More evidence shows autism raises risk for later siblings

It's already known that children with older siblings who have autism spectrum disorder or ASD, have a higher risk of developing the condition themselves,  and a new study in Pediatrics finds that risk is even higher than previously expected.

"We expected the rates to be significant, but not as high as we found," said Dr. Sally Ozonoff, lead author and vice chair for Research at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute. “We pretty much know genetics is a factor somewhere in the autism puzzle, but there may be other factors that work with the genetic makeup to cause the condition. We just don't know.

"The message we'd like to see come from the study is primary care physicians need to look at infants more closely when they are born to a family with children with ASD."

In the study, the largest of its kind, according to Ozonoff, researchers monitored 664 infants, registered with the Baby Siblings Research Consortium who either had an older biological brother or sister with ASD. They followed the little ones from infancy to 36 months. Previous studies estimated that the ASD recurrence risk in younger siblings was between 3% and 10%. But this study found that the overall risk was much higher, at 18.7% and even higher in families with more than one affected sibling – about 32.2%.

"This does not mean that every family who has a child with ASD will have a second child with ASD. It's just their risks are higher," noted Ozonoff. "And keep in mind we found that 80 percent of children with older siblings who had ASD never developed any signs of autism. It's just an indicator that parents and physicians need to be aware of."

Male babies experienced nearly three times the risk over female infants, 26% versus 9%. Age of parent, gender of the older sibling or birth orders were not predictors of the condition, meaning if the first child in the family does not have ASD, and the second child does, the risk percentages are still the same for the next child.

"I think you'll find that parents with children who have ASD will not be shocked by these finding," said Dr. Alycia Halladay, director of research for environmental sciences for Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization that heads up the Baby Siblings Research Consortium. "But the data does support the importance of monitoring infants from birth who have older brothers or sisters with ASD. Because recognizing autism at an early age is key to getting a child successful treatment"

Authors of the study suggest their findings could also impact future genetic screening and family planning decisions when it comes to parents of children with ASD. The knowledge of the risk could also lead to earlier observation and intervention for babies born into these particular families.

"This study just backs up what other data has been saying, even more so, " said Ozonoff. "But we'd like primary care professionals to be more aware of the risks for newborns with ASD siblings, so they can ask the pertinent questions to parents about the new sibling, such as 'Is he or she looking at you, learning to point, smiling?' All of these are important aspects of deciding whether a young child may have ASD."


July 18th, 2011
07:46 AM ET

What are the chances I'm a genius?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu.

Asked by Zachary from Portsmouth, Rhode Island
I'm a 14-year-old boy and I was told that I have Asperger's syndrome. The doctors told us that I have the IQ of a borderline genius. On average what are the chances of that happening?
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July 5th, 2011
01:10 PM ET

Study: Environment plays larger role in autism

Researchers in California suggest environmental factors may play a larger role in triggering autism than was previously thought.  Their study was published Monday in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

The study shows a "need to accept that we have to go down the route of environment and genetics " when it comes to studying the causes of autism, says lead author Dr. Joachim Hallmayer. "We have look at both sides of coin."

Scientists at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, using state records, identified 192 pairs of twins in which at least one of the two had some form of autism. Among these sets, there were 54 pairs of identical and 138 pairs of fraternal twins. The Stanford researchers then examined the children for autism themselves, using standard diagnosing tools.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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