Autism Research Review – March 2013

CC BY-SA by Egan Snow

CC BY-SA by Egan Snow

Android robots teach autistic children

A team of mechanical engineers from Vanderbilt University and ASD experts  have come together to build a robotic system armed with numerous sensors, mikes, cameras and computers called NAO ( read: now). It’s aimed at teaching children develop a classical social skill which is deficient in autistic children, joint attention. This is a basic act of coordination of other things and people present in the environment that children learn naturally but autistic children find difficult to master.

The structure called ARIA (Adaptive Robot Mediated Intervention Architecture) is what allows the robot to interact with the child. It’s an intelligent environment built around NAO that makes it so humanoid and autism-friendly. The robot can adapt to every child automatically based on the child’s responses. Over a dozen children between 2-5 years were recruited to test the efficacy of this robot, six with and six without ASD. Results showed that the children in both the groups spent greater time looking at NAO than their human therapist.

The research published in March in IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering could be path breaking and may open newer avenues for classroom teaching in autism.


Autistic mouse gets better with novel drug

March has witnessed a breakthrough that every parent worldwide will be happy to hear.  Researchers headed by Robert Naviaux at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, utilised a newly identified feature of an old pharmaceutical molecule to correct cell communication in a mouse with autistic features. The good news is that the team successfully reversed the features of this devastating neurological disorder.

PLOS ONE featured an article on this ground-breaking Antipurinergic therapy (APT). Naviaux explained that the fundamental principle of this therapy is to restore communications between neighbouring cells which have ceased due to inflammation from any cause. So they used ‘suramin’ to test reversal of autism-like features in an animal model. Voila, suramin corrected 17 kinds of abnormalities in the mice.

The research is like a beam of hope for thousands of children suffering from ASD world over. Although reversal of human suffering is a while away, it is definitely one strong step in the right direction.


Spare the rod, spoil the child is equal to Perform better after punishment

An academic team from the University of Nottingham found that the age old adage hasn’t quite lost its charm. The study lead by Dr. Marios Philiastides, was published in the Journal of Neuroscience on 13th of this month. The doctor commented that the study gave important information about functioning of the complicated human brain and could lead to newer diagnostic methods for neurodevelopment disorders like autism.

By simply asking children to identify the shape behind a rainy window and imposing monetary penalties on giving the wrong answer, the researchers found progressively better performance as the punishment sum increased. It showed that the decision making process in brain based on the sensory information that is being decoded. Lastly, the participants with greatest improvement of performance were the ones with highest changes in brain activity. This might open a whole new avenue towards personality testing.

The study team thus concluded that punishment did lead to better performance irrespective of the sensory information- aural or visual.