+ Autism Science Moving “Stunningly Fast”

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From an article in USA TODAY by Liz Szabo, we learn that the quest to unravel the mystery of autism has become more urgent.  Autism is more widely diagnosed; today the condition is affecting one in 88 children (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Researchers feel that for the first time they are making progress  in understanding the autistic brain.  Thanks to work with real autistic children, scientists are getting a glimpse of what might go wrong in early development, according to researcher Sarah Paterson, developmental psychologist at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.

And Kevin Pelphrey, associate professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, says the latest research gives him hope for therapies, even therapies that can reshape children’s brains.  “Treatment can have effects even very late.  It’s not a lost cause at all.”

Much of the progress is a result of parents who have pushed for funding that is now bearing fruit.

Technological advances in imaging, stem cell research, gene sequencing and computing have opened doors.  Robert Schultz, director of the Center for Autism Research at Children’s Hospital, says that in only a few years, it will be cheaper to sequence an autistic child’s genetic blueprint than to perform an intensive, one-on-one behavioral examination.

Many Problems, Not Just One

Autism is now commonly regarded not as a single condition but as a puzzle with multiple pieces, and none of them appear to fit together to form a recognizable picture.  The condition seems to be a group of related disorders with similar symptoms but different causes.

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, says that if you’re looking at an autistic child’s whole brain, “you would be amazed at how normal their brains look.”  So doctors are zooming in deep.  They’re looking at the “wiring” between brain regions and the spaces between cells, where chemical messages are sent.

Other researchers have “created” brain cells in the lab: they transform ordinary skin from autistic children into stem cells and then coaxing them to morph again into neurons.  This approach allows doctors to examine the microscopic spaces between brain cells, called synapses, the place where chemical messages are sent.

Ricardo Dolmetsch, associate professor of neurobiology at Stanford, says “This is the very beginning of a revolution.”

sole source is Liz Szabo’s article at www.usatoday.com on April 8, 2012.

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