Researchers have been studying autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for many years, but new discoveries are continually reshaping the way we think about autism. Most of the research provides relatively small hints and clues, but occasionally a major breakthrough will help us see ASD in a new light.
Let's take a look at two recent studies, the first about the biology of autism and the second on the behavior of people with autism. Both kinds of studies are important to better understand and treat people with ASD.
Autism and the Brain
Neuroscientists at MIT and Harvard University have recently made an important discovery about the brain chemistry of people with autism compared to those without.
They found that a certain behavioral symptom of autism is associated with reduced activity of a certain neurotransmitter, known as GABA. GABA is very important in the brain, where it acts to inhibit, or dampen, the activity of neurons.
The study examined autistic and non-autistic adults, using a visual test to determine how they reacted when viewing two images at the same time, one in each eye. The authors also used a type of MRI scan to examine their brains during the test, and their findings were quite fascinating for autism researchers.
When viewing two images at once, it's normal for the brain to try to inhibit one of them. The non-autistic adults were better at inhibiting the images, as was expected, but it was also found that the levels of GABA in their brains were correlated with how good they were at the test. The more GABA they had, the better they could inhibit the images.
For autistic adults, however, there was no correlation between levels of GABA and how well they did on the test. The researchers say this indicates that GABA does not function as effectively in the brains of autistic people, although their overall levels of GABA are the same.
Caroline Robertson, lead author of the study and a researcher at MIT and Harvard, says that this is an important step in autism research. “This is the first connection in humans between a neurotransmitter in the brain and an autistic behavioral symptom,” she said. “It’s possible that increasing GABA would help to ameliorate some of the symptoms of autism, but more work needs to be done.”
If this connection between autism and GABA is real, the authors are hopeful that the kind of test they used for the study could also be used for early diagnosis of autistic children. Pre-verbal or non-verbal children could be given a fairly simple visual test that only requires them to be able to see, giving physicians another avenue for diagnosis.
Autism and Wandering
The Cohen's Children's Medical Center of New York recently published a nationwide study on the tendency of children with special needs to wander away from adult supervision. This was the first study of its kind to look at school-aged children across the country, and it looked at children with ASD along with other developmental disabilities.
Wandering poses obvious safety risks to the children, and it also causes a lot of stress for the parents. The study found that over 26% of children with special needs had wandered at least once in the previous 12 months, and children with ASD were more likely to wander than children with other cognitive impairments. Kids aged 6 to 11 wandered more often than those aged 12 to 17.
Unfortunately, the children who are most likely to wander are also more likely to have a hard time handling the situation. They tend to get lost easily, are less likely to recognize danger, have difficulty distinguishing between strangers and familiar people, and panic in new situations, among other behaviors.
These results underscore the need for more understanding and better treatment protocols for people with autism. The problem of wandering was likely underestimated by many researchers but studies like this can bring this issue and others to light, where they can be targeted and solved.
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