Millions in new autism funds projected by NIMH

Federal officials announce funding of research projects to determine best ways to deliver services to autistic children, teens, and adults.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)announced that they are funding 12 research projects to identify the best practices and most effective treatments for autistic people at three key stages of life. This comes on the heels of last summer’s renewal of the Autism CARES act by Congress and last year’s finding of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee that access to services is a major issue for families with autistic members. 

“Despite the significant number of people of all ages identified with ASD, access to effective services remains inconsistent at best. Parents are often left to navigate what is available as best they can, and worry for the future as their affected children grow into adulthood,” said Thomas Insel, director of the NIMH. “This research is aimed at testing care strategies, adaptable across communities, in which identification of need and engagement in optimal interventions and services will be standard for all ages.” 

The NIMH will provide $7.9 million in the first year of funding for the projects. Some of those projects will determine how best to identify and diagnose children with autism as early as possible and how to ensure those children are connected with intervention services. Another set of projects will focus on people preparing for the post-high school transition, testing methods to improve school-based service coordination for transition services, build parent advocacy skills, and how to teach transitioning young adults self-regulation and self-determination.  The last set of research projects will examine techniques to help adults with autism develop social skills, gain employment, and achieve independent living. 

Federal officials say the studies are designed to highlight approaches that are effective for individuals with autism spectrum disorders of any ethnic or economic background in addition to strategies at these three key life stages.

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Autistic Mice Go Social

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology published a study Septermber 11 in online journal Cell that has exciting implications for understanding underlying neural circuit dysfunctions in autism. Specifically, the study focused on the part of the brain called the amygdala, which processes emotions. The big discovery: antagonistic neuron populations in mouse amygdala control whether the mouse engages in social or asocial behavior. Many studies have already established that autism in mice correlates with autism in humans. 

Researchers describe the discovery as a “see-saw circuit” because the animals can’t engage in both social behavior and asocial repetitive self-grooming at the same time. Their mission was to find out why. 

The team, led by postdoctoral scholar Weizhe Hong in the laboratory of David J. Anderson, the Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology at Caltech and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, discovered two intermingled, yet distinct neuron populations in the amygdala. One population controls social behavior such as mating, fighting, or social grooming, while the other controlled asocial behavior such as repetitive self-grooming. The social neurons, they found, are inhibitory and release the neurotransmitter GABA, while the asocial neurons are excitatory and release the neurotransmitter glutamate, an amino acid. 

The researchers employed a technique called optogenetics to study the relationship between these two types of cells and their associated behaviors. The neurons were genetically altered to express light-sensitive proteins via microbial organisms. Then, by shining a light on the modified neurons via a tiny fiber optic cable inserted in the brain, the researchers were able to control the activity of the cells and their associated behaviors. 

The researchers were effectively able to switch different behaviors on and off. By shining the light on the social neurons, the mice exhibited social behavior. When this light was turned up, the mice became aggressive. When the light was shone on the asocial neurons, the mice spontaneously started to groom themselves. They were then able to switch off the asocial behavior by switching on the social behavior.

What really surprised the researchers was the way in which these two groups of neurons appear to interfere with each other. The activation of the social neurons inhibited the asocial behavior, while the triggering the asocial neurons inhibited the social behavior; hence the seesaw analogy.

In autism,” Anderson says, “there is a decrease in social interactions, and there is often an increase in repetitive, sometimes asocial or self-oriented, behaviors” — a phenomenon known as perseveration. “Here, by stimulating a particular set of neurons, we are both inhibiting social interactions and promoting these perseverative, persistent behaviors.” 

There have been previous studies that show how disruptions in autism-related genes can change social and asocial behavior, but this study is the first to provide the necessary link between gene activity, brain activity, and social behaviors. Obviously, the goal is not to establish a therapy where autistic people have their neurons genetically altered and then controlled via fiber optic cables, but the understanding of this seesaw circuitry will be necessary in developing future therapies. 

“All of this is very far away,” says Anderson, “but if you found the right population of neurons, it might be possible to override the genetic component of a behavioral disorder like autism, by just changing the activity of the circuits — tipping the balance of the see-saw in the other direction.”

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Earlier Intervention Could Be Key To Beating Autism

One of the few things everyone can agree on with autism is that early intervention with behavioral therapy gives children the best chance at beating developmental delays. Now scientists are trying to determine just how early to intervene and to establish therapies that will work for infants. 

Many children start displaying symptoms of autism such as lack of eye contact and repetitive behavior as early as six months, but diagnosis usually comes after the age of three. The reason: all infants develop at different rates and unless a parent is on the lookout for symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), they can be easily overlooked at such a young age. 

A new study out of UC Davis MIND Institute conducted a small-scale study to determine the efficacy of therapy on very young children. The study monitored the progress of seven children between the ages of 7 and 15 months who showed signs of autism. The infants and their parents attended weekly therapy sessions, where they learned behavioral modification techniques and exercises they could integrate into their daily lives. 

At 36 months, the results were clear: three of the five children who were expected to develop autism when they were babies displayed no delays or symptoms. One child was diagnosed with mild autism but no developmental delays, and one child developed severe autism.


“It was like this beautiful thing happened,” says one parent participant with two older autistic children. Her son didn’t just catch up to his peers, but surpassed them. “This completely helped him. I don’t know what would have happened (otherwise).”

Of course, this study was way too small to draw any real conclusions, so why is it getting so much attention? 

Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, an associate of psychiatry at Columbia University, answers,“This pilot study suggests that parents can be trained to interact with their at-risk infants using many of the same principles that are used for toddlers and preschoolers with ASD.”

“It begins to set the scene for future randomized, controlled studies to evaluate whether this type of intervention could actually prevent babies from developing full symptoms of autism spectrum disorder,” Veenstra-VanderWeele said. If it proves to work on a larger group, this “would be a truly transformative finding.”

It also shows the need to develop methods for earlier diagnosis. As of now, doctors and parents rely on looking for behavioral symptoms that are easily dismissed or overlooked in very young infants, but soon they may be able to screen with genomic testing or even a simple blood test.

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Opposite Brain Activity in Autism and ADHD

The ‘Rich Club Network’ Integrates Information from Different Parts of the Brain

Many children who display hyperactive or inattentive behavior are diagnosed with both Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A new study published last month in Human Brain Mapping, however, suggests the two disorders may be the result of distinctly different, opposing patterns of brain activity.

While ASD and ADHD share some common genetic risk factors and behavioral symptoms, this study looked at the dense network of neural connections that integrates information from different parts of the brain, referred to as the ‘rich club network’. It is believed this rich club may make it possible to accomplish highly complex ordinary tasks, like driving, that require the integration of information from different senses, cognitive ability, and motor skills.

The scientists mapped the long paths of neurons across the brains of 16 autistic children, 20 with ADHD, and 20 controls. They examined which neurons worked in sync while the brains were at rest and combined the structural and functional data, revealing the rich club network by identifying the most highly connected regions of the brain.

It was found that the children with autism tended to have a disorganized rich club network of neurons with an abundance of weak connections. The children with ADHD were shown to have much fewer connections than either the autistic or control group.  Because this study focused on a rather small sampling, the researchers examined data of 85 people with autism and 101 controls stored in the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange, and found very similar results.

There have been many studies recently about people with autism, synapses, and brain activity, with apparently inconsistent results at first glance. Some studies show that people with autism have weaker local neurological connections than those without, while others indicate that autism may be the result of too many local connections and not enough long-distance ones. This new study, however, finds a possible middle ground – excess local connections (not necessarily stronger or more functional), but only within the rich club networks.

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Autism Screening – The Latest

With autism diagnosis rates increasing by large margins throughout the US, as well as internationally, researchers are focused on finding ways to screen for symptoms of autism at earlier ages, enabling children to receive the early intervention treatments that they need.

A new study, published today, focuses on studying infants as young as six months old. These children received various forms of therapy, administered by their parents, up to the age of four. By the time these children reached that age, none of them required any additional form of autism therapies or treatments.

Researchers at the University of California Davis MIND Institute focused on infants between the ages of 6 and 15 months, and although they were too young to receive an autism diagnosis, they were labeled at high risk due to severity of specific symptoms. Sally Rogers, professor of psychiatry at US Davis and co-author of the study, states, “We know that autism affects children very differently from one child to another, and we know that no one intervention will affect all children the same.” She continues, “but we do believe, and the infant literature tells us, that learning happens the most rapidlyearly in life, giving less time for the behaviors associated with autism to develop.”

Previous studies focused on children at slightly older stages, primarily between the ages of 18 to 30 months old. These children received 20 hours a week of social and behavioral therapies with clinicians, along with an additional 5 hours of therapy with their parents. The group that received the therapy was observed to have greater improvements in their behavior and capabilities than that of the control group. This study provided strong evidence that intensive early intervention can significantly improve behavior in children on the autism spectrum.

The new study, administered to children much younger, was actually of a low-intensity, and of a low-cost. The focus of the study was to get parents into the habit of interacting with their child from a new perspective.  For example, if babies had difficulties with repetitive hand behaviors, the parents were taught to give their child a toy whenever they began the repetitive motion, to occupy that hand with a stimulating activity. In addition, therapists taught parents to find every opportunity to present themselves directly in their babies’ field of vision, particularly if those babies never sought eye contact.

The study showed that most children were doing very well by the time they reached the age of two, with many no longer qualifying for additional behavioral therapy. Furthermore, many were able to go on to attend a standard preschool. The outcome of this study shows that infant screening is incredibly beneficial, as it can allow for more effective and less intensive interventions.

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Technology Startup Enables Teens with ASD to Prepare for Presentations

In recent years, developments in technology have enabled individuals on the autism spectrum to learn more effectively, communicate better, as well as develop a wide range of skills. Furthermore, advocates and entrepreneurs have made strides to give those with autism better opportunities to live successful lives, including preparing them for employment.

Danielle Feerst, CEO of AutismSees, is dedicated to helping those on the autism spectrum make successful public presentations. AutismSees is a startup that creates technology, specifically apps for mobile devices and tablets, to help those on the spectrum learn how to best present themselves to others and get their message across.

The first app that Feerst has made available is iPresentWell. Although it is fully functional at its current stage, Feerst and her team aim to add more functionality, such as user eye contact and facial recognition tracking. The apps have been backed by various fundraisers, and the team hopes to bring more attention and funding to AutismSees to increase the capabilities of their technology. Feerst states, “We are hoping to gather user feedback and design feedback with our summer trial partner, Goodwill of Silicon Valley. Goodwill is piloting a program to hire and train youth with higher functioning ASD in job interviews and social skills that they are rolling out this summer. So we have kept in contact with them and are developing a new interactive web application and feature changes for our iOS app this fall.  All money we raise on Seedkicks – AutismSees will go to our development and fall research at Tufts University.

Currently, iPresentWell enables users to import a written script of an oral presentation to their device, as well as monitor their eye movement as they reh
earse their presentation, and even record videos as they present. The app also enables users to set goals for themselves, by measuring their progress and seeing their improvements.

AutismSees was founded to be a tech solution to a common issue amongst those on the autism spectrum, which is a lack of eye contact. Large numbers of teens on the spectrum are graduating high school and need tools to prepare themselves for interviews and the transition into the workforce. AutismSees instills confidence by enabling users to practice open-ended dialogue, presentations, debates, and even gives information on how to build professional relationships.

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Early Cerebellum Injury Examined as Possible Autism Cause

Researchers at Princeton University are exploring early cerebellum injury as a possible cause of autism. Their theory suggests that an injury to the cerebellum (the part of the brain known to process external and internal  including sensory cues) at a very early stage in life disrupts the brains processing of information and leads to problems in other parts of the brain.

“At some point, you learn that smiling is nice because Mom smiles at you. We have all these associations we make in early life because we don’t arrive knowing that a smile is nice,” explains associate professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Sam Wang. “In autism, something in that process goes wrong and one thing could be that sensory information is not processed correctly in the cerebellum.

The cerebellum has been largely studied in how it relates to motor function and coordination in adults. It has only recently been thought to influence childhood cognition. There have been several studies that found a statistical correlation between early cerebellum injury and the development of autism, but this study is pioneering our understanding of the process.

“What we realized from looking at the literature is that these two problems — autism and cerebellar injury — might be related to each other via the cerebellum’s influence on wider neural development,” Wang said. “We hope to get people and scientists thinking differently about the cerebellum or about autism so that the whole field can move forward.”

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Diagnostic Blood Test For Autism Spectrum Disorder: In the Works

Laboratory services company, SynapDx, is developing a diagnostic blood test for autism. While research indicates that autism is caused by both environmental and genetic factors, research has also uncovered potential biomarkers of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

“Our idea was to create a simple blood test to look at markers in the blood associated with autism, but not with other developmental disorders,” explains CEO Stanley Lapidus. The goal is to facilitate earlier diagnosis and treatment. Many infants show possible signs of autism as early as 18 months, but because all children develop at different rates and many grow out of early developmental delays, diagnosis is usually made around the age of four years.

The company has not yet announced when the blood test will be made available, but it currently is showing 90% sensitivity in detecting autism. The Lexington, MA based laboratory is currently conducting a clinical study of 880 children aged 18 months – five years to determine the accuracy of the blood test and at what age it is most effective.

Early intervention is key in the treatment of ASD, and advances in therapy and education techniques have enabled many children to lose the autism label. A test that enabled parents to intervene at an earlier age would help them give their children an advantage over their disorder.

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Closer to Understanding Savant Syndrome

Approximately 50% of all people with “Savant syndrome,” a rare condition where a person displays remarkable genius in one specific area, have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). With most of the other half being related to a brain injury or other acquired condition, it is natural to make the link between autism and savant syndrome.

The movie “Rain Man” brought autistic savants to the mainstream consciousness back in 1988. Since then, so much research has gone into uncovering the possible causes of both autism and savant syndrome. It now seems that rather than a rare symptom of autism, savant syndrome may simply occur along side autism, with the same root causes and similar development.

The current understanding of what happens in the brain of a savant is that when damage occurs in the left brain hemisphere, home to higher-level memory circuits, other parts of the brain step up to compensate and rewire. This rewiring can result in the release of previously dormant capacity for memory. Whether artistic, musical, spatial, or mathematical, the common thread between these amazing savant abilities is uncanny memory in one very specific area.

We’ve reported on several recent studies on the autistic brain that conclude autism can be caused by the same process of rewiring, resulting in increased brain plasticity and synaptic connections.  This may be in response to mutated RNA that could create the need to rewire, resulting in autism, savant syndrome, or both.

Savant syndrome is very rare. Almost every case of congenital (not acquired later in life) savant syndrome occurs in an individual with some form of autism. Whether the autism causes the savant syndrome, or the two occur concurrently remains to be seen, but the amazing abilities of the autistic savant will no doubt continue to captivate and inspire us for generations to come.

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What Robots Can Teach Us About Teaching Autistic Kids

A few years ago, the Nao robot was introduced as a socially assistive humanoid robot who would help people of all ages, “to be less lonely, to do rehabilitative exercises, and to learn social behaviors.” Since then, several studies have been conducted on the different ways these robots can help children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to learn and develop social skills. The latest of such studies is wrapping up at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, focused on teaching autistic children to practice imitation, a social skill that could help build autonomy. Entitled, “Graded Cueing Feedback in Robot-Mediated Imitation Practice for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” the study provided useful insight into how any teacher, human or humanoid, can best approach instructing people on the autism spectrum.

In the study, two groups of high-functioning children with ASD played an imitation game with the robot. The robot commanded the children to strike a pose or action, and when successful the robot’s eyes would flash green and say, “Good job.” When the children in the control group failed to imitate the robot correctly, he repeated the command without variation. In the non-control group, when a child failed to imitate correctly, the robot repeated the command, but added visual cues as well as more descriptive instructions.

The study showed that children who received the graded cueing feedback (varied instructions), showed improved or maintained performance, while the children in the control group simply stayed the same. The results suggest that the varied feedback was less frustrating and more effective than repeating the same instruction over and over.

“The idea is to eventually give every child a personalized robot dedicated to providing motivation and praise and nudges toward more integration,” says Maja Mataric, USC Viterbi Vice Dean for Research and leader of the study. That may still be a while off, but the next time you find yourself repeating the same instruction over and over to your child, think of that robot and try a more varied approach. Combine visual and verbal cues and follow up with more detailed instruction.

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