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Posts Tagged ‘Got Questions?’

Why is international research on the prevalence of autism important?

December 28, 2010 5 comments

“Got Questions?” is a new weekly feature on our blog to address the desire for scientific understanding in our community.  We received over 3000 responses when we asked what science questions were on your mind. We answered a few here and the Autism Speaks Science staff will address the other themes we received in this weekly post.

Evidence suggests that autism knows no cultural, ethnic, or geographic boundaries.  It affects 1 in every 110 children (or about 1% of children) in the United States and converging research findings from around the world suggest that autism may affect 1% of the global population.  However, most autism epidemiology studies to date have taken place in select areas of relatively developed nations and communities and have used strikingly different study designs that complicate comparison across studies.  Further, very little is known about the occurrence of autism in low-resource territories with limited to no public health capacity and infrastructure.  By working to address these barriers and to facilitate well-designed epidemiology research around the world, investigators can begin to answer questions surrounding the occurrence of autism globally.

International research can help address questions regarding the causes of autism and changes in its occurrence rates over time.  Specifically, by comparing autism prevalence across nations, researchers can generate clues about the involvement of genetic risk factors or environmental exposures. International studies create opportunities to study autism in different ethnic groups, in special populations (e.g., those that are genetically closely related), and among populations with specific or uncommon environmental exposures (e.g., certain pollutants) not found elsewhere.

Additionally, some nations have special resources, such as health registries and surveillance systems that can generate large datasets and make previously impossible studies on the causes of autism possible. Autism Speaks is currently supporting the iCARE project which combines data from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Israel, and Australia to investigate pre- and peri-natal risk factors for autism.

Just as autism’s high prevalence rate drove its emergence as a public health priority in the United States, children in nations around the world will benefit when their governments recognize that autism is not a rare disorder.  Epidemiology research can help increase awareness about autism and help government agencies develop informed policies regarding care of individuals and families with autism and other developmental disorders within their country.

In addition to epidemiology, it is vitally important to investigate additional areas relevant to public health research and dissemination.  Specifically, understanding the economic impact of autism can help researchers and advocates gauge the impact of autism on societies, including the quality of life of affected individuals and families.  Equally important, this information can serve as a means to promote increased access to low-cost and widely available services, such as through healthcare insurance reform in the United States.  Additionally, the impact of early diagnosis and early intervention on the economic burden of autism can be assessed to further make the case for increased service support to both general and underserved populations in the U.S. and aboard.

International autism research will not only shed light on the scope of the autism challenge around the world but will also serve to raise global awareness of autism. As this increased awareness can help galvanize communities, epidemiologic findings have the potential to influence government, public health agency, and medical organization policies and practices, thus benefiting previously underserved communities. In low-resource countries in particular, these efforts will function to enhance the infrastructure and capacity necessary for ongoing autism research as well as for services. International research may also help uncover previously undiscovered genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the development of autism spectrum disorders, thereby further benefiting the scientific community and ultimately, affected individuals and their families.

Why is autism more common in boys?

December 21, 2010 4 comments

“Got Questions?” is a new weekly feature on our blog to address the desire for scientific understanding in our community.  We received over 3000 responses when we asked what science questions were on your mind. We answered a few here and the Autism Speaks Science staff will address the other themes we received in this weekly post.

In 2009, researchers discovered an autism risk gene on chromosome 17 called CACNA1G that is more common in boys than girls. The gene is partially responsible for regulating the flow of calcium in brain cells. Calcium is very important in transmitting information and having too much of the mineral may cause the overexcitability of neural circuits that we have seen in autism. This is a promising finding, though there have been other suggestions. Some researchers have suggested that females are less vulnerable to developmental disorders because of their neurochemistry. Also, autism risk genes have been found on the X chromosome. Since girls carry two X chromosomes, they have two copies of these genes, and one of the genes may not carry the mutation. This may help to protect them against the effects of an X-linked mutation. Although we don’t have a firm answer yet, the gender imbalance in autism diagnoses is a clue that researchers are pursuing actively.

Are you aware of any research being done on diet and its affect on children w/ autism? If so, what has been learned?

December 21, 2010 3 comments

“Got Questions?” is a new weekly feature on our blog to address the desire for scientific understanding in our community.  We received over 3000 responses when we asked what science questions were on your mind. We answered a few here and the Autism Speaks Science staff will address the other themes we received in this weekly post.

To date, there have only been a few published rigorous clinical trials examining the efficacy of dietary treatment (specifically, the gluten-free, casein-free diet) for improving symptoms of ASD. These have been negative or inconclusive, but were based on very small samples. More recently, Dr. Susan Hyman at the University of Rochester reported the results of a double-blind, randomized trial in which children who were on the diet were challenged with foods containing casein and gluten. Dr. Hyman examined factors such as attention, sleep and the stool of 22 children with ASD both challenged and unchallenged and found no benefit from the diet. Dr. Hyman stressed that her findings don’t rule out the possibility that there may be subgroups of children who benefit. Autism is a very heterogeneous condition. More research is needed.

How can families participate in research studies?

December 21, 2010 Leave a comment

“Got Questions?” is a new weekly feature on our blog to address the desire for scientific understanding in our community.  We received over 3000 responses when we asked what science questions were on your mind. We answered a few here and the Autism Speaks Science staff will address the other themes we received in this weekly post.

Great question! We hope more families wish to get involved in research. One easy way to get started is through an online portal called the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) at ianproject.org. This site allows you to participate in research from your home. You can also find studies and participate in programs supported by Autism Speaks. If you are interested in a clinical trial (which is not just about treatment, but also diagnosis, identifying subtypes, etc.) you can find more information at clinicaltrials.gov.

Any link between vaccines and autism? Put this issue to rest once and for all, one way or the other?

December 21, 2010 9 comments

“Got Questions?” is a new weekly feature on our blog to address the desire for scientific understanding in our community.  We received over 3000 responses when we asked what science questions were on your mind. We answered a few here and the Autism Speaks Science staff will address the other themes we received in this weekly post.

We really wish it were that simple. Several epidemiological studies have explored whether either the MMR vaccine or thimerosol, a preservative previously used in vaccines, are linked to autism, and these studies have not supported a link. However, these studies were not designed to identify effects in a small population of potentially vulnerable children due to rare genetic and/or medical conditions. We are seeking to understand if vulnerable populations exist, and if so, how we identify them early so they can be protected from public health threats in the safest manner possible. For more information please see our vaccine statement and an interview with Dr. Geraldine Dawson, Autism Speaks’ Chief Science Officer, about vaccines and autism.

Has the rate of autism truly increased in the last 50 years or so or is it just that the classification of autism has gotten broader and as such the prevalence seems larger?

December 21, 2010 4 comments

“Got Questions?” is a new weekly feature on our blog to address the desire for scientific understanding in our community.  We received over 3000 responses when we asked what science questions were on your mind. We answered a few here and the Autism Speaks Science staff will address the other themes we received in this weekly post.

In the last two decades reported autism prevalence has increased by more than 600% and a number of studies have sought to investigate the cause(s) of this dramatic increase in autism prevalence over time. Recent findings suggest that at least a portion of the increase in prevalence can be attributed to changes in diagnostic practices, earlier age of diagnosis, and increased awareness of autism over time. However, converging evidence also suggests that while these factors account for a portion of the increase, they cannot alone explain the dramatic rise in autism prevalence. Thus genetic and/or other environmental factors likely play a role and are the subject of numerous research projects currently supported by Autism Speaks.

Is there empirical evidence that parental age is a contributing factor to giving birth to a child with autism?

December 21, 2010 2 comments

“Got Questions?” is a new weekly feature on our blog to address the desire for scientific understanding in our community.  We received over 3000 responses when we asked what science questions were on your mind. We answered a few here and the Autism Speaks Science staff will address the other themes we received in this weekly post.

A number of recent publications investigating the relationship between parental age and autism have demonstrated that older parents are at increased risk for having a child with autism. This is not surprising since increased parental age is associated with a slightly increased risk for other developmental disorders, as well. Grether, et. al. reported in 2009 that parental age and particularly maternal age is a significant risk factor for autism. The authors found that a 10-year increase in maternal age increased the chances of having a child with autism by 38% and mothers over the age of 40 were at highest risk. Other studies, such as a recent study by Hertz-Piccioto, found that the risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in older mothers was lower than 38%. King and Bearman, et. al. similarly found that older mothers and fathers were at increased risk of having a child with autism with the largest risk among mothers aged 40 and over. Since the risk for ASD is low, the risk for ASD in older mothers, although increased, is still relatively low. The underlying mechanism behind the relationship between increased parental age and risk for autism is currently unknown and under investigation.

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