Posted by Simon Wallace, Autism Speaks director of scientific development for Europe
A fine mist was rolling in off the Atlantic as we made our way to the opening session of last week’s International Conference on Autism at the National University of Ireland, in Galway. Autism Speaks partnered with the university and the American Ireland Fund to put together a program that attracted not only researchers and clinicians, but also parents and policy makers. In all, more than 600 delegates attended this productive conference in the beautiful town of Galway, on Ireland’s west coast. The meeting was very much the brainchild of Autism Speaks board member Adrian Jones, a native of Ireland who now works for Goldman Sachs, in New York City. (You can view the full program here.)
We received a warm welcome from National University of Ireland President James Browne before spending two days hearing from international experts on advances in clinical practice, early intervention therapies and educational supports. As hoped, the presentations spanned the range of evidence-based practices in the United States and Europe. This included important information coming out of our own Autism Treatment Network (ATN) and other Autism Speaks programs and initiatives.
The morning presenters included Helen McConachie, of Newcastle University, who spoke about early intervention. Gillian Baird, a pediatrician from Guy’s Hospital in London, spoke as the chair of a committee that developed the United Kingdom’s clinical guidelines on referral and diagnosis of children and teenagers with autism. Also presenting was Cathy Lord, of Columbia University. Lord has been centrally involved in the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which physicians use to diagnose autism and related disorders. She explained that there would no longer be three separate diagnoses of autism, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). In the future, these will all be included under the unifying diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is to avoid the persistent inconsistencies in how physicians assign children to one of the three subtypes.
Afternoon workshops included a presentation by our own Vice President for Translational Medicine Rob Ring, who spoke about the latest evidence for clinical use of medications for patients with autism. ATN Program Director Nancy Jones presented on the network’s ongoing work developing best practices and clinical guidelines.
Connie Kasari, of the University of California-Los Angeles, presented the second day’s keynote address, which focused on the large numbers of children with autism who receive services in schools—and the need for more research on the effectiveness of these services. Among the interesting research findings that Kasari described was the insight that young children with autism are more “socially connected” than we previously assumed. Around 20 percent, she explained, enjoy close friendships. Intriguingly, Kasari has observed that this social connectedness drops when schoolchildren with autism go out for recess.
For me, the highlight of the second day was a presentation by Jamie Reilly, who spoke of the challenges growing up with autism and how he went on to graduate from Ireland’s top-rated university and is now studying for a master’s degree in Belfast. Reilly spoke of the importance of his family—in particular how his “mum” taught him strategies for overcoming many of the difficulties he encountered. He also described how he occasionally continued to make mistakes—for example, saying “good riddance” rather than “goodbye” to one of his teachers at the end of a lesson. With his fantastic sense of humor, Reilly kept us laughing throughout his presentation.
We also heard from Jamie Reilly’s father—James Reilly, a physician and Ireland’s current minister of health. Minister Reilly’s emotional presentation spoke of his pride in his son’s achievements and respect for his wife’s determined efforts to ensure that Jamie had the opportunities he needed. The minister spoke of the need to provide the best evidence-based approaches to help children with autism reach their full potential. He also announced his ministry’s commitment to provide an additional $4 million over the next three years to improve diagnostic and early intervention services. Minister Reilly will also be creating a senior post to coordinate autism-related activities across Ireland’s departments of health and education.
As we wrapped up this fantastic conference, many delegates told us that this was the largest conference ever held at the university and one that stood out in the sheer number of stakeholders from the autism community. We left for our homes and workplaces with the feeling that we are on the “front foot” for the New Year, thanks to what we learned about the latest research and guidelines on evidence-based practices.
This week a reporter from Bloomberg News asked me to comment on new research showing how stimulating certain brain cells can spur autism-like symptoms–and how calming these same cells can restore normal behavior. The reporter quoted me as calling the research “revolutionary.” It’s true—for a number of reasons.
We need to study brain activity to better understand and treat social behavior disturbances such as those associated with autism. Researchers do this by seeing what happens when they change what’s happening in the brain. But until now they’ve had only crude methods such as administering chemicals that target many parts of the brain.
To better understand normal and altered brain activity, we need to pinpoint exactly where something is going wrong. It helps to think of brain cells and their connections as microcircuits. Following this analogy, researchers need to be able to test specific microcircuits within the brain.
With this in mind, Karl Deisseroth and his colleagues at Stanford University used genetic engineering to create mice that produce brain chemicals that are activated by light. When activated, these chemicals excite surrounding brain cells. The researchers then used tiny pulses of laser light to produce activity in specific parts of the brain—right down to the level of a few brain cells, or a specific brain circuit.
Using this approach, the researchers found that when they stimulated certain cells in the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain involved in social behavior—the mice stopped socializing with each other. At the same time, the mice’s brain waves took on a pattern seen in many persons with autism. Then, the researchers used a different light that dampened the activity and calmed the overexcited cells. In response, the mice started socializing again and the autism-like brain waves began to disappear.
The idea here isn’t to control behavior or implant fiber optics in anyone’s brain! What Karl has developed is a way to help us see exactly where something might be going wrong inside a brain and decipher exactly what is happening there.
Importantly this kind of approach may allow us to use lab animals to test new medicines that can help “rebalance” certain brain circuits to ease autism symptoms–and do so with fewer or no side effects.
This is the kind of pioneering research that wins the Nobel Prize. Even more important, we at Autism Speaks want to be supporting research along this promising path toward greater understanding of autism, its prevention and its treatment.
Translational research in autism converts complex scientific discoveries into real life benefits for those living with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Earlier this year, I had the privilege of organizing and moderating a translational research symposium we called “Autism Spectrum Disorders: From Genes to Targets to Treatments” at the New York Academy of Sciences. The symposium was made possible through funding from Autism Speaks. Indeed, sponsorship of meetings like this is an essential part of Autism Speaks’ commitment to advancing innovative autism research.
The New York Academy symposium brought together respected experts working on translational autism research from the proverbial bench to the bedside. The day was filled with stimulating scientific discussion that helped those of us involved in this research to align our research priorities.
In this week’s “Science in the City” podcast from the New York Academy (click the image below to access the podcast), you can listen in as two of the symposium’s speakers offer a behind-the-scenes look at the new technologies and treatments that could redefine how we understand autism. Eric Hollander, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, talks about using oxytocin, a brain chemical that fosters social bonding, as a potentially treatment for aspects of autism. And Timothy Roberts, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, discusses his use of brain imaging to identify early markers of autism—such as a tell-tale delay in how a child responds to voices and other sounds.
For more information about the translational research Autism Speaks funds, please visit our Grant Search portal, where you can learn more about specific studies on technology development, biomedical interventions, and more.
We’d love your feedback. So please leave a comment and respond to our polldaddy question of the day below the podcast link. Thanks.
Click the image to hear the podcast.