Autism Research: May 8, 2015 Week in Review

ResearchSuper strong brain signals give clue to sensory overload worries in autism

A new study published this week in the reputed journal Brain talks about what might be a strong reason why people on the spectrum face sensory overload problems when going to new environments, etc. a team of researchers led by Harvard Medical School neurology professor Tal Kennet studied the people with autism have atypical connections not just in surrounding areas of the brain, but even those that are distantly located. The sensory signals relayed into the brain cells are much heightened compared to typical peers. This breakthrough finding might explain why people on the spectrum react overly to stimuli like touch, lights and sounds. The researchers also found that the nerves that carried commands from the brain to the rest of the body were unusually weak. The team used a technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG) that can detect brain activation changes over milliseconds, being much faster than a regular functional MRI scan. They studied 15 autism boys with 20 typical boys between the ages 8 and 18. The findings of the study have opened up a whole new field of thought as well as avenue for further research.

Journal reference: Somatosensory cortex functional connectivity abnormalities in autism show opposite trends, depending on direction and spatial scale. Brain. 2015 May; 138(Pt 5):1394-409. DOI: 10.1093/brain/awv043

Preterm births indirectly associated with cognitive functioning

Preterm birth, the leading cause of neurological disability in US in children, has been now found to be linked with poor higher cognitive functioning due to poor neural connections for the same. This might be the reason that premature babies are commonly diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy, ADHD and other neuropsychiatric disabilities. The study was conducted at the Centre for the Developing Brain at King’s College and published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team of researchers led by Prof. David Edwards originally started off with trying to understand as to what is it that makes preterm babies born more likely to have neurodevelopmental defects. The team studied 66 infants using functional MRI (fMRI) to assess connectivity between the thalamus and the cortex, two areas of the brain. They found that preemies showed poor connectivity between areas of the brain needed for higher cognitive functions as well distantly connected areas. Also, they found higher connectivity between the thalamus and a primitive sensory area of the brain that connects to the face, etc.

Journal reference: Specialization and integration of functional thalamocortical connectivity in the human infant. Hilary Toulmin, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1422638112. Published online 4 May 2015.

Researchers attempt to understand gut microbiome role in autism

Researchers led by Dr. Richard Frye of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital have organized a research program to delve deeper into the theory of gut microbes affecting autism. the results of their 1st international symposium and other meetings have been published as joint article in the international journal Microbial Ecology in Heath and Disease this week. With gathering momentum, they have started laying down the foundations for this hypothesis and are gathering evidence and conducting studies to prove the same. In due time, they should be able to either prove or disprove this theory that gut microbes play an active role in driving autism symptoms.

Journal reference: Approaches to studying and manipulating the enteric microbiome to improve autism symptoms,” Microbial Ecology in Health & Disease 2015, 26: 26878 – dx.doi.org/10.3402/mehd.v26.26878