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Autism Tied to Increased Connectivity in Brain Networks

Autism tied to increased connectivity in the ‘mirror’ and ‘theory of mind’ neuronal systems of the brain, both of which are integral to imitating, and understanding other’s perspectives. Clearly, these researchers are onto something:

– Dr. John Carosso

Adolescents with autism spectrum disorder show atypically increased functional connectivity involving the mentalizing and mirror neuron brain networks, according to a study published online April 16 in JAMA Psychiatry.

FRIDAY, April 18, 2014 (HealthDay News) — Adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show atypically increased functional connectivity involving the mentalizing and mirror neuron brain networks, according to a study published online April 16 in JAMA Psychiatry.

Inna Fishman, Ph.D., from San Diego State University, and colleagues used resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging to compare brain networks in 25 adolescents with ASD (aged 11 to 18 years) and 25 typically developing adolescents. Participants were matched for age, handedness, and nonverbal IQ.

The researchers found that participants with ASD showed a mixed pattern of both over- and underconnectivity in the theory of mind (ToM) network, which is associated with greater social impairment, compared to the controls. This increased connectivity was seen primarily between the regions of the mirror neuron system (MNS) and ToM. The connectivity increase was correlated with sociocommunicative measures, suggesting that excessive ToM-MNS cross talk might be associated with social impairment. A subset of the 15 participants with ASD with the most severe symptomology showed exclusive overconnectivity effects in both ToM and MNS networks, which were also associated with greater social dysfunction compared to a tightly matched subset of 15 typically developing controls.

“This excess ToM-MNS connectivity may reflect immature or aberrant developmental processes in two brain networks involved in understanding of others, a domain of impairment in ASD,” the authors write.

Autism: Is it genes or environment? New research suggests both but focuses on the latter:

Though genetics are really important in determining autism, it’s not all about your genes: Environmental factors play a significant (but largely misunderstood) role in the incidence of the disorder. According to Autism Speaks, the role of the environment in autism is “a crucial area of study,” especially since the increasing prevalence of the disorder in recent decades has left many scientists wondering what’s behind the rising numbers.

A new study — the largest one to date — examined how autism runs in families, and found that environmental factors are far more important in understanding autism causes than previously thought. Researchers at King’s College London, the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, and Mount Sinai in the U.S. reviewed data from Swedish national health registers, analyzing two million people — 14,516 of which had been diagnosed with autism. The researchers examined two measures of autism risk, heritability (risk attributed to genetic factors) and “relative recurrent risk,” or risks among people who have a relative with autism.

“Heritability is a population measure, so whilst it does not tell us much about risk at an individual level, it does tell us where to look for causes,” said Avi Reichenberg, an author of the study, in a press release. “We were surprised by our findings as we did not expect the importance of environmental factors in autism to be so strong.”

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of neurodevelopment disorders that involve social impairment, difficulties in communicating, and restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). People diagnosed with autism typically have some forms of irregularities in their brains, such as abnormal serotonin levels or a disrupted brain development in the womb.

Numerous studies have linked autism to environmental factors. One 2009 study tried to examine why autism rates began to increase significantly throughout the 1990s, pointing to environmental factors like chemical pollutants, metals, and pesticides as the culprits. Other environmental factors that have been linked to autism include the parental age at conception, infection during pregnancy, and maternal nutrition. And yet other studies have pointed to high iron levels in the mother as a potential autism link. But let’s make things clear: none of these things are likely, on their own, to cause autism. Instead, they probably influence the risk in people who are already genetically predisposed to developing the disorder. Understanding the causes of autism is still uncertain, complicated and multi-faceted.


Part of the King’s College London study tried to understand the risk among individuals who are related to someone with autism. They found that children with a sibling who had autism were 10.3 times more likely to develop the disorder. “Our study was prompted by a very basic question which parents often ask: ‘If I have a child with autism, what is the risk my next child will too?’” Dr. Sven Sandin of King’s College London and Karolinska said in the press release. “Our study shows that at an individual level, the risk of autism increases according to how close you are genetically to other relatives with autism. We can now provide accurate information about autism risk which can comfort and guide parents and clinicians in their decisions.”

Reichenberg continued: “Recent research efforts have tended to focus on genes, but it’s now clear that we need much more research to focus on identifying what these environmental factors are. In the same way that there are multiple genetic factors to consider, there will likely be many different environmental factors contributing to the development of autism.”

Just Released, CDC Reported 1 in 68 Children Now Affected By Autism

This week, the CDC announced the current autism prevalence rates — now 1 in 68 children. Next week will bring the start of another media-drenching Autism Awareness Month. So, right now, I’m bracing myself for the probable onslaught of the kinds of news reports and opinion pieces that make me cringe — the ones that use pejorative words like “crisis” and “epidemic”; the ones that suggest that my child and my life are problems to be solved.

Yes, 1 in 68 is a staggering number. When my son Bud was diagnosed in 2003, the rate was 1 in 250. A few months later, it changed to 1 in 166, and it has increased steadily since then.

1 in 68 is a powerful soundbite. It’s a startling statistic. That’s why it’s so important — so critical — to remember, when we quote the statistic, that each of those “ones” in 68 is a full, whole, wonderful, valuable person, filled with gifts and potential and talent.

1 in 68 does not mean that autism is an enemy that needs to be conquered.

1 in 68 means that we need educational systems that truly meet the needs of a population that learns differently.

1 in 68 means we need to provide better access to health care, treatments and services for those who do not currently have that access.

1 in 68 means we need to act thoughtfully and consciously to create a world in which our differently-wired children are understood, accepted and valued, and in which they have the services and supports they need to live full, rich, meaningful adult lives.

This is my 1 in 68. In the coming weeks, if you find yourself barraged by doom and gloom reports in the popular press, think of him. He is neither a problem nor a crisis. He’s a full, whole, wonderful, valuable person.

And there are a whole lot of other kids out there who are just like him.

Caffeine consumed 6 hours before bedtime reduced sleep by more than 1 hour

Be careful of caffeinated drinks even up to 6 hours before bedtime, especially if you or your child already have sleep issues:

A new study shows that caffeine consumption even six hours before bedtime can have significant, disruptive effects on sleep.

“Sleep specialists have always suspected that caffeine can disrupt sleep long after it is consumed,” said American Academy of Sleep Medicine President M. Safwan Badr, MD. “This study provides objective evidence supporting the general recommendation that avoiding caffeine in the late afternoon and at night is beneficial for sleep.”

Results show that 400 mg of caffeine (about 2-3 cups of coffee) taken at bedtime, three and even six hours prior to bedtime significantly disrupts sleep. Even when caffeine was consumed six hours before going to bed, objectively measured total sleep time was dramatically reduced (more than one hour). However, subjective reports suggest that participants were unaware of this sleep disturbance.

The study is in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, which is published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

“Drinking a big cup of coffee on the way home from work can lead to negative effects on sleep just as if someone were to consume caffeine closer to bedtime,” said lead author Christopher Drake, PhD, investigator at the Henry Ford Sleep Disorders and Research Center and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioralneurosciences at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich. “People tend to be less likely to detect the disruptive effects of caffeine on sleep when taken in the afternoon,” noted Drake, who also is on the board of directors of the Sleep Research Society.

Drake and his research team studied 12 healthy normal sleepers, as determined by a physical examination and clinical interview. Participants were instructed to maintain their normal sleep schedules. They were given three pills a day for four days, taking one pill at six, three and zero hours prior to scheduled bedtime. One of the pills contained 400 mg of caffeine, and the other two were a placebo. On one of the four days, all three pills were a placebo. Sleep disturbance was measured subjectively with a standard sleep diary and objectively using an in-home sleep monitor.

According to the authors, this is the first study to investigate the effects of a given dose of caffeine taken at different times before sleep. The results suggest that caffeine generally should be avoided after 5 p.m. in order to allow healthy sleep.

Just a fairy story: step-parents are not always evil

New research suggests that the myth of the “evil” stepparent treating the stepchildren different that bio-kids is largely unfounded. Professionals often have a skewed perspective and see only the worst situations. I’ve found that most of these similar myths are unfounded and, for example, most foster parents are truly loving and appropriate, step-parents love all their kids, and that most adoptions are wonderfully successful.

Contrary to common belief, parents do not generally treat their stepchildren less favourably than their own. Until now, many researchers believed in the so-called “Cinderella effect.” It states that it is biologically inevitable that parents care less for stepchildren because they do not spread their genes. However, researchers have discovered an important exception. If there is a reasonable chance of increasing wealth in the parents’ environment then no difference is made between one’s own children and stepchildren. Thus, parental care depends on more than just the biological relationship.

This is the result of a study published by Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research researcher Kai Willführ together with Alain Gagnon from the University of Montreal in the scientific journal Biodemography and Social Biology. “We are now able to prove that the Cinderella effect is not an inevitable reflex of stepparents,” says Kai Willführ. The scientists investigated if and how strongly parents neglected their stepchildren by looking at the mortality of children in historic patchwork families from the 17th to 19th century. They compared the Krummhörn region of East Frisia (Germany), which was a densely populated area with little space for demographic development, and the growing Canadian settlements in Québec. For both areas they calculated how the children’s chances of survival changed when a stepmother moved in.

The conclusions showed that only in Krummhörn, which offered fewer opportunities for demographic growth, the stepmother had a negative influence. In Krummhörn children from a father’s first marriage died more often before the age of 15 if a stepmother moved in. This effect was not seen in Québec, even though the tragedy of Aurore Gagnon, a young girl who died from wounds inflicted by her stepmother and her father in 1920, is still fresh in Quebec’s collective memory . The “Cinderella effect,” therefore, does not inevitably seem to occur. The stepmothers must have treated their children in East Frisia and Canada completely differently.

The extent of this effect is striking: if a Krummhörn girl lost her mother early, the likelihood of her dying before the age of 15 more than doubled compared to a girl whose mother did not die. If the father remarried and the stepmother joined the family, mortality doubled again. Thus, the arrival of a stepmother affected the girls in East Frisia as much as the death of their own mother. In Québec, however, the risk of dying young barely changed when the new mother moved in.

“The stepmothers in Québec seemed to understand that the offspring from their husband’s first marriage were not competition for their own children with their new husband,” says researcher Kai Willführ. “Families in Quebec during this time were comparatively huge,” explained Professor Alain Gagnon. “French-Canadian families in the 17th to 19th centuries grew to fill the empty land, and more hands meant greater food security or even wealth. Children from a previous marriage could often help the step-parent care and educate their younger brothers and sisters.” On the contrary, according to the “Cinderella effect”, stepparents would always consider “foreign” children to be competitors to their own children and could thus neglect them.

Care for children is strategy

But that only happened in Krummhörn, where siblings competed for basic needs. “We assume that stepmothers neglected, exploited or even abused the children from their husband’s first marriage,” says socio-biologist Willführ. The fact that this only happened in East Frisia shows that the context in which patchwork families are living – whether there is room for economic development or not – strongly influences how parents allocate their affection to their own children and stepchildren. “The difference is due to the scarcity of resources. It wouldn’t be going too far to say that we could talk about a difference between the New World and the Old, between Europe and North America,” demographer Gagnon said. “Our popular culture is constantly looking for Cinderella’s Evil Stepmother, but cases such as reported in the movie “Little Aurore’s Tragedy” here in Quebec were the exception rather than the rule.” Although the scientists used historic data, their results have fundamentally challenged the veracity of the “Cinderella effect. “It is therefore also true today, that stepparents are not always evil,” says researcher Kai Willführ.

Hyper-connected neurons may cause social symptoms in autistic children

Hyperconnected neuron
Connection between neural hyper-connections and Autism; very interesting finding:

The brains of children with autism show more connections than the brains of typically developing children do. What’s more, the brains of individuals with the most severe social symptoms are also the most hyper-connected. The findings reported in two independent studies published in the Cell Press journal Cell Reports challenge the prevailing notion in the field that autistic brains are lacking in neural connections.

The findings could lead to new treatment strategies and new ways to detect autism early, the researchers say. Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting nearly 1 in 88 children.

“Our study addresses one of the hottest open questions in autism research,” said Kaustubh Supekar of Stanford University School of Medicine of his and his colleague Vinod Menon’s study aimed at characterizing whole-brain connectivity in children. “Using one of the largest and most heterogeneous pediatric functional neuroimaging datasets to date, we demonstrate that the brains of children with autism are hyper-connected in ways that are related to the severity of social impairment exhibited by these children.”

In the second Cell Reports study, Ralph-Axel Müller and colleagues at San Diego State University focused specifically on neighboring brain regions to find an atypical increase in connections in adolescents with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. That over-connection, which his team observed particularly in the regions of the brain that control vision, was also linked to symptom severity.

“Our findings support the special status of the visual system in children with heavier symptom load,” Müller said, noting that all of the participants in his study were considered “high-functioning” with IQs above 70. He says measures of local connectivity in the cortex might be used as an aid to diagnosis, which today is based purely on behavioral criteria.

For Supekar and Menon, these new views of the autistic brain raise the intriguing possibility that epilepsydrugs might be used to treat autism.

“Our findings suggest that the imbalance of excitation and inhibition in the local brain circuits could engender cognitive and behavioral deficits observed in autism,” Menon said. That imbalance is a hallmark of epilepsy as well, which might explain why children with autism so often suffer with epilepsy too.

“Drawing from these observations, it might not be too far fetched to speculate that the existing drugs used to treat epilepsy may be potentially useful in treating autism,” Supekar said.

Mental health issues land man in jail

Mom of jailed autistic man

By Joe Smydo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

From childhood, Drake Munger was a loner who flinched at loud noises and didn’t like to be touched.

Today, the 19-year-old is in Washington County Jail on $100,000 straight cash bond — still struggling to cope with life around him and, his mother said, an example of what can happen when mental illness and autism collide with the justice system.

“He looks like a skeleton right now,” Caroline Drury said of her son, estimating he has lost about 25 pounds since he was jailed Aug. 8 for what she called misunderstandings and police called a bicycle theft and attempt to smuggle a shank into a courtroom.

As mental hospitals across the country have closed, jails and prisons have grappled with an influx of mentally ill offenders, and the justice system has struggled to balance treatment and punishment — issues explored last month in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s series “After Mayview.” Mr. Munger’s case underscores those challenges, with a twist.

Ms. Drury of Donora said her son’s schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are compounded by mental retardation and autism, a brain disorder often characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulties with social interaction. Already, Ms. Drury said, her son’s constant pacing has gotten him into disciplinary problems at the jail.

She hopes her son’s charges will be transferred from regular criminal court to the county’s mental health court, which emphasizes treatment over incarceration for defendants whose offenses stem at least partly from their psychiatric disorders.

She said jail is no place for her son, who has an IQ of less than 70, had been accused of retail theft as a juvenile and is so fascinated with werewolves that he has been known to sharpen his fingernails into points. She has pressed the issue with the public defender’s office, which represents her son.

Chief public defender Glenn Alterio declined to discuss the case. Ms. Drury said she’s trying to raise money for a private attorney.

Counties nationwide are embracing mental health courts, which Washington County Common Pleas President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca launched in her county with the support of other officials in 2008. Defendants may be admitted to mental health court, over which Judge O’Dell Seneca presides, or to similar diversionary programs operated by the county’s district judges.

Common Pleas Judge Katherine B. Emery on Oct. 9. postponed a bond-reduction hearing for Mr. Munger while officials decide whether he would be a candidate for mental health court. Ms. Drury said an error in judgment already cost her son an opportunity to be admitted to the program by a district judge.

On July 5, according to police records, Mr. Munger called 911 and said he was detaining a person who had been breaking into vehicles at a Monongahela park.

In court records, Officer Kevin Harris said he arrived to find Mr. Munger with two juveniles, one of whom he accused of the break-ins. “When I asked him how he knew this, Munger stated that he was told by one of his own family members.”

One juvenile said Mr. Munger took out a knife and slashed his bicycle tire to keep him from leaving the park, and the other said Mr. Munger had stolen the bicycle he rode to the park. According to the officer’s report, Mr. Munger said he got the bike a couple of days earlier from a friend but didn’t know the friend’s name.

Officer Harris charged Mr. Munger with various offenses, including unlawful restraint, false imprisonment and receiving stolen property. Mr. Munger found himself in more trouble Aug. 8, when, Ms. Drury said, he might have been entered into a diversionary program during a hearing before District Judge Mark Wilson.

According to court records, a state trooper noticed that Mr. Munger had slipped something into the waistband of his pants outside Judge Wilson’s office. Police described it as a 7-inch wooden shank; Ms. Drury said it was one of her tomato stakes, which her son cut off and may have taken with him for a suicide attempt.

“He talks about suicide all the time,” she said.

Police charged Mr. Munger with carrying a weapon, and Judge Wilson set a $100,000 straight cash bond.

Mr. Munger’s father, Joseph Munger of Monongahela, also was charged that day with attempting to intimidate one of the juveniles involved in the case. He denied wrongdoing.

Ms. Drury, who is raising two other children, Caleb, 3, and Dakota, 1, said she cannot afford to get her son out of jail.

With limited social and coping skills, a person with autism would have a difficult time adjusting to the stress of jail or prison, said John Carosso, a licensed psychologist and executive director of the Autism Center of Pittsburgh. He said some manifestations of autism, such as fast or constant speech, could annoy other inmates. Kristin Gallagher, the center’s director of family support, said Mr. Munger’s illnesses could make him a target of abuse or exploitation by other inmates.

Depending on his condition, Mr. Munger should not be “in a regular jail” but a treatment facility that can meet his medical needs while his case unfolds, said Daniel Torisky, president and co-founder of the Autism Society of Pittsburgh, which has recommendations for how the justice system should treat offenders with autism. Mr. Torisky said he’s willing to provide advocacy services to Mr. Munger and his family.

At a hearing Sept. 19, officials withdrew the unlawful restraint and false imprisonment charges, and Mr. Munger waived other charges to court. A court-monitored mental health treatment program could be a great benefit to Mr. Munger and his family, Ms. Drury said, asserting it has been difficult to find the right combination of therapy and medication for him.

Judge O’Dell Seneca, who did not discuss specific cases in an interview last week, said a county assessment team reviews candidates for mental health court. Eligible defendants voluntarily commit to a customized regimen of treatment and monitoring. The judge said she believes the defendants’ consent to treatment often yields better results than a court-ordered treatment plan.

Defendants “enter into a contract with me personally. It’s couple of pages long. … They buy into this,” Judge O’Dell Seneca said.

Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548.

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