Will Virtual Reality Training Build Social Cognition?


Social impairments are often one of the most challenging aspects of transitioning into adulthood for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Many of these impairments restrict individuals from building relationships, participating in social environments, and integrating into the community.

Could virtual reality programs really help these individuals improve their social function? This is the question that Dr. Yang addressed in recent study by asking autistic participants to interact in virtual social environments. Each individual spent an hour inside of a virtual world twice a week. During this time, they were asked to interact with a webcam recording and translating their facial expressions into a virtual landscape. During the session, they would interact with avatars that were animated by their autism therapist.

Participants were also provided with relevant situations such as job interviews, going on a date, or interacting with a new neighbor. Frequently, the therapists worked to help participants recognize an unspoken intention behind an avatar’s behavior or encourage them to communicate their own emotions and feelings in a socially acceptable manner.

The virtual realties used for this type of coaching and education are still in developmental stages, but researchers are pleased with the initial results. Dr. Yang reported “early results are beginning to reveal a remarkable degree of malleability in the neural systems involved in social cognition in adults with ASD.” Overall, new neural pathways were engaged to better social understanding and social skills building.

More information on Dr. Yang’s study can be found here.


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“Think About A Hug”: Social Patterns in Brain Imaging to Diagnose Autism


The process of diagnosing autism typically consists of a combination of analyzing verbal and physical behavior. This might all change thanks to recent research from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). PLoS One recently published a study demonstrating a new way to examine activation patterns in the brain that provide a highly accurate diagnosis. These brain-reading techniques use “neural representations of social thoughts to predict autism within a 97% accuracy.”

The study examined a control of 17 adult patients with neurotypical patterns and 17 adults with high-functioning autism. Each participant was asked to think about different social concepts such as “hug”, “persuade,” or “adore” while recording images of the brain.

Machine-learning algorithms analyzed the images of brain during the experiment. The brain image patterns greatly differed between the two groups and all of participants were successfully classified with a 97% accuracy rate.

Marcel Just of the CMU states, “This is potentially an extremely valuable method that could not only complement current psychiatric assessment. It could identify psychiatric disorders not just by their symptoms, but by the brain systems that are not functioning properly. It may eventually be possible to screen for psychiatric disorders using quantitative biological measures of thought that would test for a range of illnesses or disorders.”

For more information about how brain representations of social thoughts accurately predict autism diagnosis, watch Just discuss the research in a video lecture here.

To read the original article click here.

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Certain Movements Can Signify the Severity of Autism

PTAccording to a recent study, slight differences in movements among individuals with autism can signify the severity of the disorder. Researchers at Rutgers University in conjunction with Indiana University have developed a quantitative method of analyzing movement, leading to a more specific diagnosis.

Jorge Jose, vice president of research at IU states, “This is the first time that we have been able to explicitly characterize subtypes of severity in autism spectrum disorder. We have determined that a pattern exists in the movement variations in some cases between children with autism and their parents, leading us to surmise that genetics plays a role in movement patterns”.

The team of researchers utilized high-sensitivity movement detectors to record minor variations in movement for a group of participants. They focused on how the participants extended their arms to touch different objects on a screen. Researchers recorded 240 movements per second for 30 individuals with ASD, 8 neurotypical adults, and 21 parents of children on the spectrum.

A spot moved continuously on a screen, and according to researchers, participants touched the spot an average of 100 consecutive times. Elizabeth Torres, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers, states, “These variations in the hand’s movement speed produced a pattern that clustered in specific regions of a graph that produced metrics we could use – not only in children with autism but in their parents”.

According to their press release: “The [minor] fluctuations in the speed of movements [in healthy adults], which we call peripheral spikes (p-spikes) normally occur at the onset or at the end of the arm extension exercise. They show very few p-spikes during the actual action, as the hand speeds up or slows down en route to the target.” The statement continues, “However, healthy children in the 3-5 year old range have random patterns of p-spikes as do adults and children with ASD.”

Researchers discovered that parents of children on the spectrum had random fluctuations in their speed, as well. The patterns of fluctuation were noted to be very useful in determining the severity of autism. Jose concluded, “We found a correlation between the randomness of the p-spikes and the severity of autism. Among those with autism, the more random their p-spikes, the lower ability [in skills such as spoken language], they had overall.”

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Researchers Analyze Specific Gene Linked to Autism Development

geneAutism spectrum disorders are incredibly complex, with researchers still trying to pin down a root cause. Recently, researchers from the University of Leeds have developed a potential lead to understanding what can be a factor in autism development. Their findings are being published in the Translational Psychiatry journal.

Researchers focused on the neurexin-II gene, which has already been associated with symptoms of autism. Researchers developed mice models to study how they would function with the gene absent. These mice acted similarly to individuals on the autism spectrum, with a lack of social ability or an interest in interacting with others.

Lead author, Dr. Steven Clapcote, lecturer of Pharmacology at the University’s Biological Sciences school, states, “In other respects, these mice were functioning normally.” He continues, “The gene deficiency mapped closely with certain autism symptoms. This is exciting because we now have an animal model to investigate new treatments for autism.” With the brain missing the neurexin-II, the MUNC 18-1 protein is also lowered. This protein is critical in releasing chemicals within the brain to make connections throughout different neurotransmitters, where messages are sent. The lack of these passageways can signify why autistic individuals have difficulty picking up various social clues.

Clapcote states, “Not all people with autism will have the neurexin-II defect, but we are starting to build up a picture of the important role of genes involved in these synapse communications in better understanding autism.”

This is a significant leap for researchers in understanding a particular reason why certain autism symptoms may develop.  Although there are only a few concrete findings in how autism can develop, there are still many theories that are being analyzed and tested. They range from antibodies in the immune system having an effect on the child’s brain, and the impact of the brain’s growth during a mother’s pregnancy. With autism being one of the most complex disorders in existence and  the diagnosis rate reaching a new high, it is essential for researchers to continue exploring other possibilities that may factor in the disorder’s development, as well as ways in which individuals can be treated.

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Sensory Stimuli and its Effect on People with Autism

hearingNew behavioral studies conducted by researchers based at the University of Toronto suggest that people with autism have a harder time correlating sight with sound, more specifically speech as opposed to sounds with in the environment.

This finding concludes that people with autism have a harder time assimilating information from other particular senses.  This would seem to be in line with the already known aspects of the language problems associated with the disorder.

An imaging technique called BOLD was used to measure the energy use in the brain showing just how much harder individuals with autism struggle to put speech together.

34 individuals were asked to watch brief videos while inside a resonance imaging scanner.  Of the 34, 16 were adults with autism.  One video shown was an individual telling a story.   The second video was similar however; the sounds of the storyteller’s words were deliberately out of synch with their mouth.

In a typical adult, the brain was shown to increase by about 18 percent when presented with the out of synch video.  In contrast, the individuals with autism produced only a 5 percent increase.

According to Ryan Stevenson, one of the postdoctoral researchers who presented the data, people with autism do not get the same boost in the brain as typical adults when confronted with processing the out of synch visual and audio.  For them, it is not much of a difference in processing the out of synch video from the former where the storyteller’s audio and visual were both aligned.

Additionally, all 34 subjects were also made to view a video of an individual making sounds only and verbalizing words at all.  Both groups, those with autism and those with out showed about a 7 percent increase in brain boost.  The outcome of which would suggest being in agreement with findings from the “intense world theory”.  Sensory stimuli and the processing of it can be overwhelming when you are working harder at both separately.

The conclusion of this research also would hint at ways to help individuals with autism work through more effectively processing what they see and hear.   Giving children with autism less sensory stimulus in the classroom for instance, may be more helpful to them and how they are processing their surroundings.

Further research is being done on perceptual training, which will hopefully give people more practice at correlating information from different senses.

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NEW Video App Aids Earlier Autism Diagnosis

child playingAccording to a recent study, identifying autism through videos taken from a parent’s smartphone was found to be 87 percent as accurate as an in-depth, in-person diagnosis. This provides parents with a new, relatively simple opportunity to have their child diagnosed at an earlier age.

According to the Naturalistic Observation Diagnosis Assessment, or NODA system, a simple video of the child in several natural settings can lead to a potential diagnosis. The assessment is used as an app, developed by Behavior Imaging Solutions in partnership with Georgia Tech and Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center. The app utilizes a 10-minute video of a child in three settings: during a meal, playing on their own, and playing with others. An additional video can be added if the parents wish to record actions that they find concerning. These videos can be used to assist the parents in addressing their concerns to a clinician.

Agata Rozga, researcher at Georgia Tech, states, “The problem is that despite all the increased awareness of autism, we’re still seeing pretty significant delays between when parents first notice that there’s something off about their child and when we’re actually able to get them into the office for a diagnosis.” She continues, “The kids are missing out on treatment during that early crucial time.” Rozga emphasizes that parents should focus on what they think clinicians will need to see in order to provide an accurate diagnostic assessment. Therefore, it is essential for parents to consider what scenarios would be best to record.

Once the videos are recorded, they can be uploaded to the clinician. Physicians are able to tag the video with certain criteria for autism, make notes, and facilitate a quantitative diagnosis process. The simplicity of being able to record a video and have clinicians make an assessment addresses one of the major issues that parents face, which is waiting long periods of time to have their child screened for ASD, forcing the child to wait to receive the therapy and care that could make a great difference in their life.

In an initial clinical study, 32 children participated in the assessment. Parents followed the NODA protocol, as well as took the child to an in-person clinician who was unaware of the NODA process. According to their findings, eighty-seven of the diagnoses matched up, with more false positives than false negatives in the ones that were inaccurate. Researchers are now looking to conduct a much larger study, slated to begin in January.

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Motor Coordination Issues Due to Abnormal Neuron Connections

motor skillsAccording to researchers, motor coordination issues in individuals with autism disorders may be due to abnormal connections between neurons. Scientists from the University of Chicago identified malfunctions in the neural circuit associated with reduced capacity for motor learning. Individuals with autism are known to struggle with various motor skills, such as sitting still, having balance, and holding eye contact.

Dr. Christian Hansel, professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago states, “We have identified synaptic abnormalities that may play a role in motor problems typically seen in children with autism.” He continues, “Autism is sometimes described as intense world syndrome – too many, too strong excitatory connections that lead to enhanced sensory input. The results of our study might shed light on this phenomenon”.

To analyze how motor issues may arise in individuals on the spectrum, Dr. Hansel and his team created autistic mouse models, implementing them one of the most common genetic abnormalities in autism, the chromosomal duplication 15q11-13. They then studied the cerebellum, which is heavily involved in motor capabilities. The team found that the autistic model mice demonstrated motor deficits by having impaired learning.

In their study, Dr. Hansel and his team taught normal mice to associate a short light signal with a puff of air to the eye. Quite rapidly, the neurotypical mice began to blink in response to the light, even with the absence of the air puff, signaling they know of the association to one another. However, the autistic mice were much slower to pick up on this, and made mistakes more often.

To analyze why the autistic mice models had slower physical responses, Dr. Hansel and his colleagues studied Purkinje cells, neurons heavily involved in motor learning. These cells can affect the sites of connection between neurons where signals are passed, becoming one of the primary mechanisms for learning and memory. In the autistic mice, the ability of Purkinje cells to depress the efficiency of their synapses was significantly reduced, limiting their ability to participate in motor learning. Dr. Hansel states that a likely cause is impaired synaptic pruning, a process that enables the trimming of unneeded synapses.

Dr. Hansel adds, “Inefficient synaptic pruning seems to be a common motif in autism.” He continues, “A direct link between synaptic studies and behavioral output is almost impossible to do with social behaviors, but we can now accomplish this. This is due to the relative simplicity of the motor system, and because the cerebellum is evolutionarily conserved, allowing for comparisons between mice and man.”


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Available Treatments for Autism

For parents of children with autism, there have been many unresolved questions on how to best provide treatments for their child. Prior to pinpointing the effects of autism and being able to put a name to it, many children with autism were placed in institutions due to lack of information, research, and treatment.  Today, autism is well researched, and a variety of treatments and services have been developed and have been made available.


With the appropriate services, support, training, and information, children on the autism spectrum can grow, learn, and flourish alongside other children. Although there is no known cure for autism, there are great options for treatments and therapies, including a conducive learning environment which could best address the needs of children with autism.


Most organizations are taking a proactive approach to autism, with research being conducted in multiple ways. Research has found that there is not one particular way of identifying people with autism, but there are collective behaviors and symptoms that can potentially signal the disorder. Previous research has found that it is best for autism to be identified as early as possible in a child’s life, to better accommodate all of their needs and address their newly developed behaviors, or prevent certain behaviors from forming.


It is imperative that families learn about all of the options and treatments that are available to them, which could best address their child’s needs and the optimal method of teaching their child. Children develop differently based on age and interactions, so a program should be selected to address a child’s developmental state and capability.


Although there is not one particular treatment that will address all of the behaviors and needs of a child, a combination of therapies and efforts can make a difference in their lives. It is important to match a child’s progression and specific needs with the best treatments suited for that particular child, which assist him or her to achieve the goals established by their parents or teachers.apicblog

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The Link between Common and Rare Forms of Autism

synapseAccording to recent research, rare forms of autism share a molecular signature with more common versions of the disorder. This finding is particularly intriguing to medical researchers, as it leads them to believe that autism is linked to a single genetic defect, also found in more complex forms of the disorder.

Researchers at the 2014 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting stated that a rare form of autism is linked to a duplication of the 15q11-13 chromosomal region, which is also duplicated in more common forms of autism.  Approximately 1 in 12,000 children carry the duplication, with about 41 percent of these individuals having autism.

Daniel Geschwind, lead researcher, analyzed patterns of gene expression in postmortem brains for 16 adults with idiopathic autism, meaning there was an unknown cause, along with the brains of 8 with autism and 15q11-14 duplications. According to their findings, the brains of those with idiopathic autism express lower levels of genes that play a role at neuronal junctions, or synapses, compared with controls. They were intrigued to find that the brains of those with the duplications showed the same trend, only to a more severe extent.

Geschwind, a professor of neurology, psychiatry, and human genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles, states, “It’s kind of remarkable. This is showing that a single gene disorder has the same pattern [as idiopathic forms of autism].”

Last month, two large studies that sequenced exomes, the parts of a genome that encode proteins, discovered that 50 “high-confidence” autism candidate genes are involved in two critical processes, neuronal connectivity and the control of gene expression. Geschwind states, “The proof is the replication. Although autism is very heterogeneous, we can capitalize on these findings to identify common molecular pathways.”

Geschwind and his team believe that autism, in all its forms, may develop from inherited genetic defects, causing dysfunctional synapses. In an attempt to correct the dysfunction, the brain sets off an inflammatory response, resulting in fewer active synapses, creating an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory signaling, common to all those on the autism spectrum.

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Broccoli Improves Autistic Social and Verbal Behaviors

broccoli sproutSeveral weeks ago, a study was released that emphasized how the intake of certain vegetables can actually improve several symptoms of autism. Now, scientists are stating that a specific extract from broccoli sprouts may be used to curb these symptoms. This new study is a first step towards potentially providing effective treatment for those on the spectrum.

Johns Hopkins Hospital, in conjunction with Harvard, conducted a study over the course of 18 weeks, treating 40 autistic males. Twenty-six of these males took pills with sulforaphane, an extract from broccoli sprouts, with the remainder receiving a placebo. Dr. Paul Talalay, professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins, study author, found that patients who took sulforaphane improved significantly. Almost half of the patients treated with the extract had “much improved” social interaction and verbal communication. Furthermore, more than half exhibited less erratic behaviors.

Upon completion of the series of taking the extract, the researchers found that the participants returned to their baseline levels for their symptoms within four weeks, signaling a need to continue with the extract to achieve the optimal benefits. Dr. Talalay states that although further research needs to be done to study how sulforaphane reacts in the body, their previous research suggests that the extract can cause the body to react as it would to a fever. Fevers are typically associated with temporary improvements in over a third of individuals with autism, so the researchers believe sulforaphane may work similarly.

Dr. Susan Hyman, chief of neurodevelopmental and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, states, “The trial needs to be replicated and evaluated in larger and more age-diverse samples, but the data is certainly worth pursuing”. With the lack of effective treatments for individuals on the spectrum, the results of this study provide hopeful news. Sulforaphane is associated with very few side effects and is considered highly safe due to its natural origins. However, families should not administer sulforaphane to an individual on the spectrum without medical guidance.

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