Podcast: Research for the end of Autism Action Month

In honor of the last week of Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month, we review in this podcast episode two new scientific findings that call for more awareness and action, and less acceptance of the status quo. First: sex differences in autism are not well understood, and as it turns out, the influences on a diagnosis are different. Males have a higher rate of heritability compared to females. Second, those with rare genetic disorders have very few options for treatment, but a new study promises hope for more personalized approaches. The researchers use Timothy Syndrome as an example of how cells can start to function properly through a targeted approach which focuses on a small part of a gene. This is potentially life saving for individuals with this disorder.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmid/38630491/

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-024-07310-6

This podcast has not covered transition from adolescence to adulthood in the past, probably because there has not been a lot of research in this area. Luckily, recently there has been a surge of investigations and scientifically – supported interventions and recommendations for individuals who are transitioning to adulthood. This podcast episode reviews the latest in where the gaps are and identified some (of many) areas that need further research. Here are the references that will be helpful.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/38493400/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/38501189/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/38423723/

https://www.autismspeaks.org/tool-kit/transition-tool-kit

Project RISE, based at Lehigh University, is designed to develop new reading instruction strategies for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.   The ASF accelerator grant will expand the focus of Project RISE by targeting a subset of the students who also have autism to investigate the unique needs of these students, as well as the knowledge, perception, and expectations of their teachers. This study will identify gaps in approaches designed to help autistic people learn to read, including how teachers deliver information to students.  It will also identify specific gaps in teacher training regarding working with autistic students.

This project is co-sponsored by the Solving the Mystery of Autism Foundation.

Self-injurious behaviors such as headbanging, scratching, and biting are common in individuals with profound autism but are poorly understood. Some of these behaviors may be responses to pain or discomfort caused by a pre-existing medical condition or unmet medical need, but this is difficult to assess in those with a limited ability to communicate. As a consequence, the medical needs of people with profound autism may not always be identified through routine healthcare visits.  Working with a large residential and day program service provider, this study will examine the relationship between medical conditions and self-injurious behaviors, and determine whether interventions addressing medical conditions could alleviate self-injurious behaviors. This project will also assess the feasibility, acceptability, and effectiveness of a new protocol designed to facilitate successful healthcare visits for people with profound autism.

Individuals with profound autism may sometimes exhibit neuropsychiatric regression, which can include catatonia, hyper aggression, and cognitive decline. This regression has been linked to infection in girls with Phelan McDermid Syndrome, a genetic condition associated with profound autism. There is some preliminary evidence linking the administration of anti-inflammatory drugs to the reversal of this regression. This animal model study will look at whether mice with the genetic mutation associated with Phelan McDermid Syndrome are more susceptible to the effects of inflammation-inducing drugs, and whether these effects can be mediated by inflammation-reducing drugs.

Individuals with profound autism may use a number of methods to try to communicate, including augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems. These systems range from pictures and communication boards to speech-generating devices and iPads and have been shown to improve overall communication and promote spoken language development. However, these AAC systems are not always accessible to all families. Utilizing the population of patients at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles (of which 40% are uninsured and 65% are from an ethnically diverse background), this study will examine factors influencing access to and use of AAC systems. 

Even in cases of autism with a known genetic mutation, there can be differences in the presentation of symptoms, which is also known as “phenotypic heterogeneity.” One way to measure this variability across individuals with autism is by examining brainwave patterns. Earlier research in people with Fragile X Syndrome has shown that individuals have different patterns of brainwave activity, which may predict their response to treatments. Building on this research, the fellow will collect cells from individuals with Fragile X Syndrome and turn them into neurons. These cells will then be tested for their own electrical activity, validating the brainwave data collected earlier. This study will then take the research a step further by examining if and how different therapeutics affect these neurons in different ways, leading to more targeted therapeutics.

Irritability and aggression are dangerous behaviors that can lead to harm and injury and are overlooked in research. Unfortunately there are only two FDA medications approved to treat them in autism. The drugs have many side effects, and there are efforts to improve these treatments and minimize side effects by lowering the dose with adjunct therapies that enhance the efficacy of the drug. So far, there are a few promising leads, but nothing that is ready for the clinic. How do scientists make the move from an interesting discovery in a lab to testing the safety and efficacy of a drug? Through animal models or model systems that examine different phenotypes in an animal and test medications on outcomes like aggression. Mice are not people, but they are necessary to ensure safe and effective treatments are translated into practice. Learn more in this week’s podcast episode.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/38263251/

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a genetically and phenotypically heterogeneous disorder (12) and it affects 1 out of 36 children (3). Due to its heterogeneity, the causes of ASD are still poorly understood and scientific research is now focused on the early identification of bio-behavioral markers to anticipate the age of diagnosis (4). Making an early diagnosis has positive implications in terms of implementation of timely evidence-based interventions and, consequently, better outcomes (5). In the complex arena of interventions for ASD, some of them are evidence-based, while others (a) are proposed without scientific basis (6), or (b) they have not yet completed the necessary steps to move from basic research to large-scale clinical application but are transferred to clinical practice. Regarding option b, in recent years, we have witnessed a worrying increase in institutes that proposing to families to treat ASD with stem cells from various sources, including those obtained from cord blood (7). The alarming aspect of this potential therapeutic proposal is the promise of significant clinical improvements in children who undergo this treatment. These institutes, which are often located in countries with low medical standards, are not proposing a research trial but the use of stem cells as a therapeutic option already validated by basic research. However, to date, can we say that the use of stem cells is an evidence-based treatment? The answer is no, and we will try in the following lines to explain the reasons for this negative answer.

This week’s podcast episode re-explores a question about a potential therapy for autism – minocycline. Minocycline is an antibiotic used to treat a number of different infections and some anecdotal reports have linked it to an improvement of autism. This has led to some experimental trials on minocycline, with inconclusive results. This week, a multisite study showed NO effects of minocycline for autism features or outcomes, but that doesn’t mean it is NOT a great antibiotic. If you need it, use it! Also, do autistic people spend too much time on their screens? Well, they seem to spend more time on devices and screens, but it might all be bad. Listen to the podcast for more information on this.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-023-06132-1

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10709772/?report=printable

A recent publication in the Lancet was dedicated to clinical recommendations to support autistic females at birth. Because more males than females are diagnosed with autism, their needs are often misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just ignored. Researchers, clinicians, scientists, parents and self-advocates from around the world joined together to identify those needs and propose solutions that can be implemented in everyday care. Listen to this week’s podcast episode to learn more, or read the article in its entirety at the link below.

https://authors.elsevier.com/c/1i5LV8Mut2Mzvb

Everyone who has looked for support for autism spectrum disorder is familiar with waitlists. Waitlists for evaluation, diagnosis, intervention, consultations and referrals. These waitlists prevent important opportunities for services and many groups developing technologies, policies, and approaches to reduce the waitlists or work around them. On this week’s podcast, we talk to Dr. Sharief Taraman from Cognoa to hear about their recent study on the scope of the problem on waitlists, what causes them, and how digital therapeutics may help them.