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What is Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy and why might it be useful for understanding autism?

Scientists used several different brain imaging methods to better understand the structure and function of the brain.  Structural magnetic resonance imaging (also, simply referred to as “MRI”) and functional MRI (fMRI) have been mainstays in autism research for the past two decades. MRI provides detailed information about the anatomy of the brain, whereas fMRI allows scientists to understand what parts of the brain are active when people are engaged in different tasks or other activities.  This is done by measuring the distribution of blood flow in the brain. Researchers have sought—and found—some differences in brain structure and function in individuals  with autism.  These experiments can measure differences in size or activity of brain structures and the connections between different areas.  However, these methods can not assess the chemicals within brain cells that support brain function.  For this, scientists rely on a method called “Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy” or “MRS.”

MRS uses some of the same technology as MRI, but with a unique twist.  It allows scientists to measure several chemicals that exist within the neurons themselves.  These chemicals offer clues to the integrity of the neurons. Different brain chemicals, or metabolites, have signature spectra that can be measured in the magnet.    Some metabolites, such as N-acetylaspartate have spectral signatures that can indicate relative health of the neurons.  Other metabolites can offer information about cellular energy reserves, lipid and fat metabolism, and the integrity of neural glial cells.  Recent advances have permitted the imaging of glutamate, glutamine and GABA, all of which are neurotransmitters that have been suggested to have some role in ASD.

Autism Speaks has supported two research investigations using MRS.  The first was an award to Evdokia Anagostou, M.D., Ph.D.,  an Assistant Professor at Bloorview Research Institute and the University of Toronto, to investigate brain levels of glutamate and glutamine in young children with ASD.  Dr. Anagostou and others have hypothesized that finding ways to reduce the overabundance of glutamate found in some individuals with autism might yield improvements in behavior.  A preliminary study using similar methods in older children was published in March in Brain Research.  In this study, they examined brain areas associated with attention and orienting functions, such as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).  The teens with ASD showed reduced glutamate and glutamine in the ACC, indicating that this important region may be functioning differently in individuals with autism. Dr. Anagostou has also recently reviewed MRS findings in autism as well as other neuroimaging results and we look forward to the results from her study in younger children.

Beatrice Golomb, M.D., Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Medicine at UCSD, has also used MRS in an Autism Speaks-supported study that was part of a larger investigation of mitochondria and autism.  Dr. Golomb designed a unique study to probe the effects of mitochondrial “fatigue” on brain function.  MRS assessments in children with and without ASD were made before and immediately after cycling exercise.  This particular study was designed as a small pilot, and though not discriminating in and of themselves, the results showed greater differences in mitochondria-related metabolites after cycling for some of the children with autism. The results encouraged the team to pursue further investigations of mitochondrial dysfunction in autism.

As magnetic imaging technology improves, so too will our ability to use MRS in new ways to non-invasively observe the working brain’s chemistry.  Not surprisingly, this technology will be valuable in our search for the pieces of the autism puzzle.  Steven Dager, M.D., Professor of Radiology at the University of Washington and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Autism Speaks, has expertise in many varieties of imaging techniques and especially their use in neurodevelopmental disorders. Dr. Dager says “Although MRI has identified intriguing alterations of brain structure in ASD, an important advance has been applications of MRS to reveal neurochemical, bioenergetic and cellular level structural alterations that underlie these anatomical changes and symptom expression in ASD.  This is important because a better understanding of these biological mechanisms can better inform the development of new treatments by targeting biological mechanisms that may not respond to behavioral intervention.”

A Loving Aunt Includes Autism Speaks in her Will

May 3, 2011 1 comment

This blog post is written by Sharon of Rochester, NY.  Her nephew’s son has autism and she has decided to honor him and his parents by including Autism Speaks in her will.

I am an Aunt of several nieces and nephews, including one who has a child with autism.  I have such a love for children.  I can’t do enough for them.  Unfortunately at a very young age, I found out I couldn’t have children.  So when children come into my life, I am very touched by them and cherish our time together.

In September of 2008, I was diagnosed with Lymphoma.  Never in a million years did I ever expect this news on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  Not knowing what my future held for me, I decided to get my things in order, meaning my will and what my wishes would be if I were ever to pass.  I feel everyone should have something in place for the future no matter what, so that your wishes are met.

Given that I do not have children of my own, I put some serious thought into who to leave my inheritance to in my will.  Finally, I decided, let me contribute a percentage of it to Autism Speaks.  I have been touched by several children with autism and was always amazed at how gifted they can be.  A young gentleman from my church congregation is a senior in high school this year and will be going on to a local elite music school for college.  It just totally amazes me.  My nephew’s son who just turned 7 was diagnosed with autism at an early age.  I was so moved in how my nephew jumped in and got involved with Autism Speaks.  They started doing the yearly walks and they came up with a team name called “Sage’s Unit.”  They rally a huge team to do the walk every year.  Sage loves to draw and my nephew says that one of the things he is best at currently is golf.  AMAZING!   Sage’s parents try to keep his life as normal as possible.  He is involved in lots of activities outside of the home.   He is doing really well in school and loves it.  I am very moved by all of their accomplishments and the support they receive from other families who have children with autism.

I realized that one way I can make a difference for Sage and my nephew is by adding Autism Speaks into my will in their honor.  This way, I know there will continue to be research on autism to help Sage as he gets older.

My favorite saying for my nieces and nephews is:

 Nieces and Nephew are the Children that we Borrow,

Intending not to raise but merely love,

Ever watchful from our open window,

Caring deeply at a slight remove.

Everywhere you go, my love will follow,

Still part of you wherever you may live.

I know whether I am fortunate enough to live out my life or become an angel in heaven, they will always be cared for by my donations.

If you have put Autism Speaks in your will or would like to learn more about doing so, we hope to hear from you.  Please contact Christine Pecorella at 646-843-6676 or Christine.pecorella@autismspeaks.org.

Autism in the News – 05.03.11

Brain Size, Early Growth: Clues to Autism’s Causes (TIME)
There’s been a lot of news recently about efforts to detect signs of autism in children earlier — even before age 2, which is when doctors typically make the first diagnosis based on toddlers’ behavior and development. (Read about these efforts here and here.) Now a new study sheds light on another key issue — why autistic children tend to develop larger brains than those without the condition. Read more.

Preterm Infants Prone to Autism Misdiagnosis (Psych Central)
Children who test positive in an autism screening at 18 months of age — but who were also born very prematurely — may not actually have the disorder. Read more.

Autism: How To Live with the Fear of the Unknown (Technorati)
People fear and hate what they don’t understand. This is a given, and has played itself out throughout history. From the attacks of religious “mysteries” in the Ancient world to modern day fear around, well, just about everything, we seem to thrive on the thrill of fear. We even have a whole industry in the media designed to either insight panic or deliberately scare us through fictional movies. Autism is no exception. Read more.

Cost often puts autism treatment out of reach (The Iowa Independent)
Willey Gale, a 13-year-old Coralville boy with autism, sat close to his mother, Casey, one March evening counting the days to spring break on her fingers. “Saturday, one. Sunday, two,” he said, clutching a finger for each number. Read more.

An Autism Mom on the Meaning of Mother’s Day (About.com)
Last year was my first Mother’s Day. I don’t remember much of it. Our house was buzzing with activity. It was the weekend of my husband’s graduation. My in-laws and my parents were in town. There was fawning over the baby. There was the successful graduate. There were 3 mothers present for Mother’s Day: me, my mother and my mother-in-law. Read more.

 

Capital One Financial Corporation held its 2011 Autism Awareness Education Session

On Monday, April 25, 2011 Capital One Financial Corporation held its 2011 Autism Awareness Education Session for its associates at its Richmond facility and broadcast to its offices nationwide.  Don Busick and Nick Sladic, two Capital One associates who founded the associate affinity group called the Autism Spectrum Connection, kicked off the presentation by explaining how they formed the group at Capital One as a part of its corporate diversity program.  A handful of Autism spectrum disorder parents got together informally at first, Don explained, and proved to be the best resource for each other.  In partnership with the company’s HR team, they founded the group with three goals in mind:  to create deeper connection for the families through membership; to provide as much useful and helpful information as possible; and, in the spirit of Capital One, to give back to the communities where they are doing business.

Judith Ursitti, Autism Speaks’ Regional Director for State Advocacy Relations, spoke on the autism insurance reform movement.  She was joined on the panel by Virginia State Senator Janet Howell and Delegate Tag Greason, who were patrons of the Virginia autism insurance reform bill, which will become law at midnight on May 6, 2011.  Robbie Maino, a college-bound high school senior who is the child of a Capital One associate, spoke movingly about how early intervention made a world of difference in his overcoming the difficulties he faced in his own struggles of autism.

In addition to providing information and support to its associates, Capital One has taken the step of electing to provide coverage for autism related behavioral therapies through their insurance carrier.

Rob “RJ” Paczkowski, Capital One’s Director of Health and Wellness, gave an overview of their autism health insurance benefit.  Beginning January 2010 Capital One provided health insurance coverage for behavioral therapy for autism and other related disorders, with no dollar or age caps, as long as the treatment was pre-certified and provided under the supervision of a board-certified behavior analyst.

In addition to insurance coverage, Capital One associates can take advantage of flexible spending accounts to pay for alternative treatments or over-the-counter medications and supplements as long as they present a doctor’s letter of medical necessity. Capital One also worked with their Employee Assistance Plan to help organize special services  and resources for special needs children and to connect its associates with government benefits available to disabled dependents which are based on the individual’s needs, not the parents’ income.  Stephen Evanko and several other Capital One associates closed the session by sharing how the autism health insurance benefit made a difference in their children’s lives.

Delegate Tag Greason, Senator Janet Howel, Judith Ursitti, and Robbie Maino

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