How Can Wearable Devices Help People With Autism?

Nowadays, technology and devices are a part of our life. this includes wearable devices which are luxury items we wear to count our pulse while training or manage our phone and emails etc.

What good can be done to people with disabilities? How can wearable devices help them in their everyday life?

Researches from Lankaster University in partnership with the charity Autism Initiatives UK, have initiated the project which supposes to build connected devices to help people who live with autism.

Autistic people sometimes can get susceptible and anxious. So the first goal of researchers is called a “digital squeezeball”. A user is supposed to squeeze a ball when he or she feels anxious. Data from those interactions were recorded using a companion app and the information later used to find out what caused the anxiety and when it happened.

“If there was a long squeeze, that would mean they were anxious and a message would be sent and the app would have picked up on that. Also, as part of the app, we had a social network system — whenever a person shared their location or state of anxiety with the group, the information was collected,” says Ferrario, a research Fellow at the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster and team leader of Clasp, told ZDNet.

Though, the disadvantage of these interactions is that “people didn’t feel comfortable about sharing data about where they were most vulnerable with people they didn’t know or didn’t trust,” says Ferrario.

Thus, researchers understood that the squeezeball wasn’t the best idea of connected devices to use to record interactions.

“We found that the squeezeball didn’t suit many people — it was a bit awkward with the communication, and the size and shape of it was an issue,” said Dr. Will Simm, research associate at the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster and technical lead of Clasp.

So the next step was to design a device, which autistic people could use in a manner they feel comfortable with.

“We came up the idea of a toolkit of components which could be put together with their own personalized sensors, their own location for wearing it for their own characterization of anxiety,” says Simm.

The first prototype looked like a wristband made up with a central computing pod designed to allow the user to customize the attached sensors.

“We wanted to make them as available and customizable as possible, so we used techniques like 3D printing and an open source environment to program it, with the intention of being able to customize it further and build their own device,” said Simm.

Researchers noticed that people could use that device in multiple ways: wrap around the wrist, tie to a belt loop or carry in a hand, and then tug or squeeze on it when they feel happy or have anxiety. The data is transferred to the researcher’s computer and than analyzed.

“We highlight the times they’ve been using it and discuss what situation they were in. It helps to reveal some different layers about their experience of anxiety,” mentioned Simm, adding that some people said it helped them understand their anxieties more.

Sending a signal about feeling anxious through the wearable device allows the user to express their feelings without verbalizing them.

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What Genes Are Causing Autism?

The physiologist from the University of Washington, Raphael Bernier and geneticist Evan Eichler started their research on genes that cause autism in late 2013 when they became interested in a 12-year old girl’s case. Bernier noticed that the girl had wide-set eyes, which had a slight downward slant. Her head was unusually large, featuring a prominent forehead. He was told that the girl had gastrointestinal issues and sometimes wouldn’t sleep for two to three days at a time. He probably wouldn’t have thought too much of this case had he not recently met an 8-year old boy with those similar wide-set eyes and a large head who also suffered from the same gastrointestinal and sleep problems.
While there were definitely other children with the similar physical peculiarities, there was one more similarity that couldn’t be considered a coincidence: a mutation in a gene known as a chromodomain helicase DNA binding protein 8 (CHD8).
CHD8 produces a protein that regulates chromatin—the conglomeration of tightly packed DNA and proteins in the nucleus—during fetal development. Bernier continued his studies and reviewed records from 25 such children from different countries. They all had similar physical symptoms. Mutated CHD8 is now one of the dozens of recognized genetic subtypes of autism.
However, not all forms of autism are caused by genetic mutations. There are also numerous non-genetic factors that contribute, such as environmental pollution, which can affect the brain of a child. Scientists are working towards a better understanding of neural development to give us an answer on what exactly causes autism.
And thanks to advances in induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology, scientists can now grow entire brain-like structures (organoids) derived from cells of patients with autism.
Last year, Yale University’s Flora Vaccarino and her colleagues reprogrammed skin cells from boys with autism who had abnormally large heads—a condition known as macrocephaly, a relatively common phenotype in autism patients—into iPSCs (the stem cells mentioned above) and then differentiated the cells into neurons. Under special culturing conditions, the cells developed into 3-D organoids— mini brains —that mimicked forebrain development at about 10 to 16 weeks post-conception. The researchers also created organoids using the cells of the boys’ healthy fathers, and compared them to the structures derived from the boys’ cells. (See “Mini Brains Model Autism,” The Scientist, July 16, 2015.)
In conjunction with this study, there has been a recent study in France that showed that brain maturation was disrupted and certain portions of the brain seemed to be wasting away in areas responsible for communication. Also, a neurologist of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, Mustafa Sahin, noticed that children with a rare genetic disorder called tuberous sclerosis (TSC), where they develop benign tumor growths in the brain and other vital organs, develop autism 50% of the time. All these studies aim at being able to treat a child likely to have autism before the disease develops.
While this is a lofty goal, methods are already in the works with University of Washington planning a clinical trial to treat mice with a medication that repairs sodium channel disruptions and with Boston Children’s Hospital working to study a tumor suppressor in the body that has been linked to macrocephaly and language and social impairments.
The results thus far have mainly confirmed the suspicion that there is not one single form of autism but many, and the different subtypes have to be identified before we can develop specific treatments for each. While there is still no treatment for any one form of autism there is the hope that if we get even one, it is very possible that we will be able to more easily find cures for all the others.

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A Simple Hearing Test May Predict Autism Risk


A recent autism study done at the University of Rochester shows that a simple hearing test may predict autism risk. The test can help to identify and start treating autism at a young age before children learn to speak and study. The researchers have identified that the inner-ear problem in children with autism may be the cause of issues with the ability to recognize speech. Anne Luebke, a study co-author, mentioned, “This study identifies a simple, safe and noninvasive method to screen young children for hearing deficits that are associated with autism.”

Many symptoms of autism become noticeable before the age of 2, and yet, most children are not diagnosed for them until they are 4. The sooner the disorder is diagnosed, the sooner the treatments can be provided, and the more chances there are for the child’s development.

In a recent study published in the journal Autism Research, researchers examined the hearing of children between the ages of 6 and 17, with and without autism. Children with autism had hearing difficulty in a specific frequency 1-2 kHz, which is essential for speech development. The degree of hearing impairment was associated with the severity of autism symptoms.

In summation, the scientists believe that the hearing test could be provided to diagnose autism early on and could even be used to screen infants as it is noninvasive, affordable and doesn’t require a child’s verbal response. This find could be a groundbreaking occurrence in the autism movement.


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Studies on Monkeys Give Hope for Mental Disease


In late July new autism research results were published on the brains of rhesus monkeys. The researchers from UC Davis, including UC Davis psychiatry professor David Amaral, shed some light on the treatments for human behavioral health conditions.

What we know currently is that there is no medicine to cure abnormal brain development and mental disorders. However, Professor Amaral’s study involves re-engineering specific cells so they respond to medicine instead of a body’s normal signals, opening the door to treatments that would alter the way malfunctioning brain cells interact with each other. For autism, it would be very helpful to know how different parts of the brain communicate with each other, as this is something that still eludes scientists.

The method Professor Amaral and his team use is called DREADD. It stands for Designer Receptor Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs.Amaral and his team “turned off” a certain part of a primate’s brain so the scientists could study how closing one function would affect other parts of the brain. This is intended to help them understand how the brain works and which malfunctioning cells cause mental disorders.

The research has been ongoing for months. It started with an operation in which Amaral inserted a manufactured gene into the neurons of four macaques. He targeted the amygdala, a portion of the brain that is associated with fear, pleasure, depression and anxiety. They had seen that the receptors became responsive only to a kind of a drug that temporarily floods and “turns off” the entire brain cell instead of ignoring normal chemical signals in the body (the “designer receptors” and the “designer drug” in the DREADD acronym).

Several months after the surgery, they did an MRI scanning and noticed that the drug succeeded in shutting down the amygdala, which in turn triggered different kinds of activity in other parts of the brain. All of this helps in forming brain maps of how different regions interact, where diseases originate, and eventually the most effective intervention methods.

During these studies, the monkeys were kept in large enclosures, cared for by veterinarians, and fed local produce. The tests were humane in that the monkeys’ brains could return to their natural state after the tests were completed. However, the scientists had the 4 macaques used in the study euthanized so that they could study the autopsies of the animals to make sure the genes continued to produce receptors for the drug a year after the surgery.

While no one prefers studies on animals, Dr. Amaral stated that these studies are more humane, and that this way they can show that this intervention is “safe for humans” and can then be performed on humans. While they are still a long way away from that, Professor Amaral does believe that “Things are really moving rapidly, and gene therapy will be used in humans and it will be based in part on proof of safety that we’re demonstrating here.”

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Autism, ADHD, & OCD More Similar Than We Thought

pouting-child-1436186-1279x850Autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may have more in common than previously thought. A recent study by the American Journal of Psychiatry involved brain imaging of white matter and discovered there were impairments in the main tract connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

This main tract is called the corpus callosum and is the largest tract in the brain and one of the first regions to develop. The white matter in this tract enables communication between different brain regions using nerve fiber connections. The scientists found that children with autism and ADHD had more severe impairments affecting the brain’s white matter than children with OCD but this is most likely due to the fact that ADHD and autism have an earlier onset than OCD and so the corpus callosum is likely more affected due to this.

Autism, ADHD, and OCD have commonalities in gene mutations and symptoms and yet they’ve been regarded as three separate disorders. However, the common behavior impairments across all three disorders have been either attention problems, social difficulties, or a combination of the two, all of which vary based on the individual and severity. The fact that they’re so similar raises the question of where similarities stop, biologically and in definition and if, perhaps, all three are part of a larger encompassing disease.

Hopefully this study will highlight the brain structure’s relation to behavior impairment and the shared biology of certain conditions. Furthermore, the study may increase the amount of treatments available by encouraging the sharing of treatments previously thought to be valid for only one specific condition that may, as we are learning now, be effective for others.

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