Autism through the lifespan #8 – Research

    Autism has no known cause and no cure. What we know about it comes from research, and Pittsburgh is a national hub for autism research.

    Autism has no known cause and no cure. What we know about it comes from research, and Pittsburgh is a national hub for autism research.

    Part eight of a nine-part series covering autism’s impact through the lifespan. Erika Beras, behavioral health reporter at WDUQ in Pittsburgh, reports.


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    Pittsburgh has one of six autism research centers funded by the National Institutes of Health. The center is run by Nancy Minshew, a neurologist at The University of Pittsburgh. She has spent the last 3 decades researching autism. The center was established over ten years ago. Since then, quite a bit has been done.

    Mark: We’re studying babies who have a brother or sister who is already diagnosed with autism. If you have one child diagnosed with autism there is going to be a much higher probability that that second child will develop autism.

    That’s Mark Strauss, a psychology professor at Pitt.


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    An autism diagnosis is done by observing behaviors. It typically doesn’t occur until a child is 3 years old. In many cases, there are earlier signs.


    Autism Spectrum Disorders are a triad of impairments that include language, repetitive or restricted behavior and difficulties with social interactions. It can be obvious, even with infants. Usually there is a sort of choreographed back and forth, mom says something – baby smiles. With some children on the spectrum, that’s not there.

    They’re studying at the at-risk babies to better understand the disorder’s impact on infants. Strauss has them look at photos of faces while an infrared light scans their eyes to see what part of the face they are focusing on. Where they look may be a sign of atypical development.

    Mark: There’s a lot of things that babies have to learn about the world that we just take for granted because we do it naturally. Face recognition – we think about it as just being very easy – every parent knows the typical baby at 4 or 5 months recognizes people. They know you vs. a stranger. It takes a lot of ability to be able to discriminate human faces.

    Strauss says autistic people look at faces differently. For example, they spend more time on local elements rather than the whole face. These difficulties are life-long.

    They’re hoping for an early detection tool. If early intervention, which typically begins at age 3 is key, then earlier intervention might produce better outcomes.

    Strauss is working with Jana Iverson, also a psychology professor. She observes the infants at their homes. Her focus is on early vocal and motor development.

    Jana:The first milestone in communicative development is the emergence of duplicated babbling – ba, ba, ba, ma,ma,ma. And most typically developing infants start to produce these kinds of vocalizations usually between the ages of about seven and eight months.

    The next major milestone is the emergence of gestures.

    Jana: Pointing with the index finger extended. That gesture in particular has been a big focus in autism research. There have been a number of studies that have talked about the fact that children with autism will point when they want something but they point much less often in order to just comment on something and share their interest in it.

    Iverson says in typical developing infants, they’ve observed just before babbling begins, so do arm movements, for example, banging on a high chair. There’s a reason for that.

    Jana: Arm movements and speech production happen to be neighbors in the brain.

    So much of communication has to do with language.

    Diane: I’m part of a team that’s looking at the neurological basis of language. We actually are using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at what is happening in the brains of both children and adults with autism while they are doing a variety of cognitive, social and linguistic processing tasks.

    Diane Williams teaches speech language pathology at Duquesne University.

    She says about 25 percent of children with autism are low verbal and 40 percent are highly verbal. But just because a person can talk doesn’t mean they have the necessary communication skills.

    Diane: The rest of us change the meaning of a word based on words around it or the way in which a person uses it and with autism, the individuals don’t necessarily make that shift in meaning.

    A common autistic trait is a monotone voice. That may also be the way they hear voices.

    Diane: We convey different meanings by changing those aspects even though the words stay the same. For somebody with autism that’s really challenging. They don’t necessarily hear those differences.

    She’s working with Nancy Minshew.

    Nancy: Its called proxity and its on the right side of the brain and it’s a language ability, and we communicate probably three quarters of what we mean by tone of voice..

    Their research uses FMRI technology. They collaborate with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

    Marcel Just is the Director for the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at CMU. They measure brain activity while a person is thinking. He’s been doing this for over ten years. His hope is to understand the biological basis of autism.

    With imaging technology, he can see what each section of the brain is doing at the same time. He says in autistic brains there is more white matter in the frontal areas and less corpus callosum which is the fissure that connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres.

    Marcel: About 40 percent of the brain is white matter. And the white matter is the myelinated axons of brains that constitute the cabling that connects the different parts of the brain to each other. It’s obviously by volume a very large proportion. In terms of importance it’s very large. Its what makes the brain a network.

    He says the reason for the slightly altered distribution isn’t understood.

    Marcel: One of the main ways in which the brain activity is different in autism is that the coordination of the activity among the different areas isn’t as good, isn’t as high, isn’t as well coordinated as in controls. It’s as though different brain areas are each activating but not coordinating quite as well, not as much.

    Marlene Behrman, a psychology professor at CMU, focuses on understanding the visual system in the brain and how it works to interpret the signal that comes from the eyes.

    Marlene works in the same FMRI lab as Marcel Just. In the rooms, there is a steady hum.

    Marlene: There appear to be some perceptual atypicalities in individuals with autism. So it had been generally known that individuals with autism tend to focus on very local components of the visual world so if you show them a visual scene with a house and children and a garden and you ask them what they are looking at they may tend to tell you just about the flowers that are present in the garden.

    Research and knowledge of autism has changed in the last fifty years.

    Mark Strauss.

    Mark: In the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s it was actually thought to be caused by mothers being unloving. The term was used, refrigerator moms.

    That theory has been largely discredited. In its place are others.

    Nancy Minshew began researching autism in the 80’s.

    Since then, there have been many studies, much research.

    Nancy: There’s about 20-25 genes that explain about 15-20 percent of the cases of autism and these genes all share one thing – they are involved in the development of connection between brain cells.

    It’s only been in the last twenty years that the Federal Government has funded autism research.

    Nancy: The brain is involved broadly and so is cognition and genes involved in connectivity. That took 25 years.

    All of that research has been focused on genetics and our internal functioning. But a pediatrician at The Children’s Institute says environmental factors are to blame for the increase in the disorder.

    Dr. Scott Faber sees about 1200 children with neuro-developmental disabilities.

    Scott: What’s occurring with each generation the exposure to heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, chromium six or the exposure to over 80,000 chemicals put out by mankind since the early 1900’s such as organic compounds, pesticides, phylates, these exposures are causing great difficulties in terms of detoxification.

    He thinks he has a solution.

    Scott: The next step we do believe would be to have children sleep in a room that looks to the body like a pre-industrial room. In other words, if you can take a child and time-travel htehm back to the 13th century in the most pristine forest that’s the kind of room we would create for children.

    They‘d sleep there for 2 weeks and spend their days as they typically would.

    They’ll be observed to see if this alters their behavior and the levels of metal in their blood and hair. If changes occur, they’ll sleep in the room for longer periods of time. He’s working with Skip Kingston, who teaches Environmental Chemistry at Duquesne.

    His hope is to come up with a biological way to diagnose autism.

    Skip:The whole goal chemically is to come up with a series of tests that will allow us to detect a child who is going into the syndrome. So before they end up they have all of the symptoms fully demonstrated in their physical nature, we may be able to catch them as they are headed in.

    No matter how much or what kind of research is done, the accepted gold standard is studying brain tissue.

    Erika Beras reports on behavioral health issues for WDUQ in Pittsburg, PA.

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