The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘studies’ Category

Autism’s “brain power”

with 2 comments

Courtesy Jochen Sand, Digital Vision/Getty Images

A story picked up by several news outlets, including Reuters and ABC News (whose version I’m critiquing in this post), reports results of a small study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that suggest autistic children have heavier brains and an overflow of brain cells called neurons.

The study is crucial because it presents the first exhibit of hard evidence of brain development veering off course for autistic children. Previous research showed that autistic children have larger heads and brains, with key regions that develop communication overgrown.

The study, using brains of 13 boys that were donated for scientific study after their deaths, discovered that brains of autistic children have 67 percent more neurons in the prefrontal cortex than non-autistic brains. The prefrontal cortex is linked to emotional, social and communication processing. The study’s lead author notes how surprising the finding was, also suggesting the abnormal development occurs in the prenatal stages as neurons aren’t generated in the prefrontal cortex after birth. Autistic brains also weighed 17.5 percent more than non-autistic brains.

While a future avenue could be explored in the research to find a cause, many point out the findings are preliminary and don’t apply to children and families currently dealing with autism. There is also no way to analyze brain tissue of living children.

The small sample size and lack of immediate impact may discourage some readers upon encountering this story. However, the findings are notable with several major outlets offering their version of the results published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although not new, the story does reveal through autism brain research that a physical characteristic that could possibly signal the condition exists, but not every person with a larger-than-average head will automatically develop the disability.

As with most study findings, extrapolating the results to a form that fits mainstream journalism remains simple, yet difficult. When combining the small number of brains studied with the lack of any immediate significance for the autism community, the challenge for reporters is seeking a relevant development for a scientific breakthrough. In this case, Gann points out that discovering that an abnormal development occurs before birth could lead to improved screening efforts in the future.

Another possible avenue that could be investigated with the knowledge of this study are what effects larger, heavier brains with more neurons could have on autistic people. Several stories on this blog and general knowledge will highlight the untapped gifts of the autism spectrum, including superior memory skills and focus. This is by no means a suggestion that larger brains equal smarter people, but considering the astonishment from the public when autistic people demonstrate skills with general knowledge, but a plethora of stories relating to autism and the brain could be found should this study lead to more examinations.

For now, we’ll have to settle for current methods of diagnosis as science always approaches its studies with a methodical attitude.

Advertisements

Written by TheSportsBrain

November 9, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Advantage – autism

with one comment

I’m aware of my most recent hiatus, which was partly due to Minnesota Lynx playoff coverage and Minnesota state high school tournament coverage, but now I’ve returned with a new story to share.

Unfortunately, my blog was not selected a winner in WCCO’s Most Valuable Blogger competition, but I appreciate those of you who still paid visits in my absence. While I continue to research a renewed fascination in the blogosphere and social media regarding Jason McElwain, the health page from NBC’s daytime program Today published a story about a Canadian researcher who argues scientists need to stop viewing autistic traits as flaws that need correction. Dr. Laurent Mottron, a psychiatry professor at the University of Montreal, reflects on recent data and personal experience in his assessment of the disability.

Mottron said researchers who notice activation in unusual regions of the brain compared to the average human, they report such activity as a deficit than an alternative brain organization. He nor most researchers will minimize the concerning outlook facing autistic people, but he advocates they can succeed in a favorable environment, including the field of research. Mottron has several autistic people working in his lab, where they can utilize their exceptional memories. Mottron believes intellectual problem may be over-estimated among autistic people because of inappropriate testing, saying how there is little hesitation to remove audible components for people with hearing impairments. In general, the research field has adapted a broader and deeper view of the disorder, although autism still presents many obstacles.

Rachael Rettner is the woman behind this story, and she reports on another changing trend in the approach to autism by science and mainstream media. While stories of struggle and the future will continue to permeate Google news feeds, the public has been exposed to potential benefits of the condition as far back as Rain Man, released in 1988. Rettner’s story isn’t groundbreaking either, as this blog does have a history of procuring articles on success stories in the autism community. However, with much fear about what autistic children and adults will be able to do, the story is part of a larger paradigm over the exact response about the enlarging base of autistic people. Many are quick to see action in order to address major problems, while others are concerned about an over-bearing assumption that autistic people need intervention in order to conform to expected values of mainstream society. Gauging where the discussion is tilting is difficult to evaluate given the unpredictable and inconsistent effects of autism, but researchers like Mottron see a vastly under-tapped potential that could benefit the community if utilized properly.

Talk about adaptation versus conformation will continue assuming many forms and tones. The conversation Rettner highlights is heavy on science and low on emotional output, without bold and temperamental claims that can sometimes fog progress. There is no question people given an autism diagnosis face a task tougher than a 16-seed playing a 1-seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, and reporters like Rettner will possess responsibility and influence in dictating the direction of the ongoing quest to determine what path, if any, should be laid for those who “think different.”

Autism on the brain

leave a comment »

In a study published in the journal Nature and subsequently reported by Robert Langreth of Bloomberg News, Stanford University researchers found that stimulating brain cells with light in mice caused autism-like symptoms.

Scientists implanted light-sensitive proteins into parts of the brain linked with social behavior, then activated them with blue lasers that were routed using fiber-optic cables. The mice subsequently didn’t socialize with other animals. When using a laser to activate cells inhibiting brain activity, the social behavior was partly restored.

The findings provide evidence to the theory that autism and other brain disorders may be caused by brain circuits oversensitive to stimulation, as the balance between neurons that spur signaling when excited and calming down activity when excited may be disrupted. The vice president of translational research at Autism Speaks predicted the laser method in this study could be revolutionary in detecting brain disorders on a molecular basis, but possible therapies based on lasers are far off for now.

Langreth’s word choice could spark an uproar among the autism community, as he refers to autism as a disease in the opening paragraph. Many involved in the autism community can be testy when others equate autism to a disease, a mindset that forms the foundation of criticism for groups like Autism Speaks (and subsequently explain the optimism expressed by the Autism Speaks member quoted in the story). The reason for such animosity is the belief that linking autism as a disease suggests the condition can and should be cured, when several on the spectrum have no qualms sharing their quirk.  For the rest of the story, Langreth uses the word disorders to term autism and other mental conditions believed to be associated with the brain. That doesn’t mean he instantly recognized how word selection could generate controversy, but he believed the two were synonymous for the story. Reporters will often employ synonyms when their articles primarily emphasize one subject, as too much repetition can lose the attention of readers or suggest that a journalist’s vocabulary isn’t strong.

The study itself provides another avenue of exploration to find the cause of autism, with researchers suggesting the findings could lead to development of drugs or devices that calm or shield parts of the brain. Despite the similarities of brain configuration in animals, humans do have larger, more complex brains than mice do, and testing the study on humans is no less than necessary to validate the findings discovered by testing mice. While no repercussions were listed, the potential for side effects exists as the study explored the impact of altering brain activity. Don’t worry, this isn’t a secret plot to control life forms for world domination, but it’s more reasonable to believe this study is only a start far from its endpoint.

Because more work is needed to examine this theory, there were few sources quoted for the article, as Langreth interviewed a senior author by telephone and the Autism Speaks representative. Most stories on studies will either conduct an interview or transplant a press release by a head researcher, as other participants would likely give similar responses, creating redundancy in the story. Although no outcry exists over the study or word choice in the story, journalists may need to exercise caution with approaching autism, or even give a story on concerns over imagery associated with autism. The population is a fraction of the United States total, but the community is certainly keeping watch.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transautistic?

leave a comment »

Photo illustration by Alexander Ho

In another story I read in May and stored in my bookmarks, the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published a study led by Simon Baron-Cohen (the cousin of actor Sacha Baron-Cohen) found that female-to-male transgender people have more autistic traits than heterosexual men or women, and also more than male-to-female transgender people. The news magazine Time picked up the story, and is the featured link in this post.

In fact, female-to-male transgender people outscored all but those with Asperger’s diagnoses on the Autism Spectrum Quotient, a scale developed by Baron-Cohen himself.

The study may fit with a theory Baron-Cohen has on people with autism exhibiting an “extreme male” brain, whose style of thinking favors “systemizing,” focusing on predictable patterns found in area like mathematics and mechanical devices (including the devices I’m using to write this post). This contrasts with “empathizing,” or understanding the emotions of others.

The difference is notable because Baron-Cohen and his colleagues recently discovered that giving testosterone to women decreased their ability to empathize, especially with women whose bodies were exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero. However, because transmen in the study had already changed gender, the study could not reveal if autistic traits were a result of increased hormones or if they led the desire to change gender in the first place. What Baron-Cohen did say is understanding these kinds of connections can lead to better care for people with both conditions.

I must admit I know very few transgender people, having met one at a social justice retreat I attended four years ago in college, so I cannot speak personally on this subject. Maia Szalavitz was in charge of writing the story, mostly summarizing what was found in the study, but included some quotes from Baron-Cohen and a co-author who identifies as a transwoman. This isn’t your “usual” study reporting a rise in autism rates or even an indiscriminate cause; gender identity itself isn’t understood well with most of the population comfortable in their original bodies, not necessarily thinking about emotional challenges endured by those who don’t subscribe to their original gender. We’ve heard of tomboys, but there is a difference between “playing with the boys” and considering a transition to one.

Szalavitz doesn’t stray too far off the typical route journalists take when reporting studies, as finding sources willing to speak about the story would be rare given the subject matter. However, a curiosity exists on how other transmen would respond to the study. Baron-Cohen is among the most respected autism researchers, although Americans are more likely to recognize his thespian cousin (both Baron-Cohens are British). Simon’s theories haven’t been heavily debunked, nor has he been involved in controversy over his research methods, so studies he authors carry noticeable weight for journalists. Even if other transmen had never heard of Simon Baron-Cohen, getting a few quotes would be beneficial regardless of their opinion. Those who agree with his findings would presents reporters a story to help relate the material to readers, and those who disagree would highlight the complicated area of gender identity.

Now, this doesn’t mean females on the autism spectrum will automatically wish to become males. Even women exposed to more testosterone aren’t confined to a linear path of transforming to men. Szavalitz simply reveals another element with much exploration to be done through the reporting of Simon Baron-Cohen’s study. Future coverage is difficult to predict with the social stigma faced by the GLBT community combined with the mystery of the autism spectrum, other than a reinforcement of the non-linear nature of gender identity and mental disability.

I’m pregnant with an autistic child

leave a comment »

Obviously, that statement is far away from entering the lexicon of childbirth, and unless I’m asked to re-enact a Cosby Show episode where Bill dreams most of the show’s male characters are pregnant (he gave birth to a two-liter bottle of Sunkist), I’ll be physically unable to claim such a thing.

However, health reporter Jenifer Goodwin returns to decipher more studies, with the story stripped in several outlets, including USA Today. Four studies are dissected by Goodwin and the findings may reveal clues on the likelihood of giving birth to an autistic child. One study reveals that catching a fever during pregnancy could increase the risk of autism in children. Another study suggests mothers who have diabetes, high blood pressure, or obesity may also carry an increased risk of autism in their offspring. Three studies examined data from 1,000 kids participating in the Childhood Autism Risks and Genetic Environment study, whose acronym is shortened to CHARGE.

In a weighted analysis, the first study suggesting a relation between fever and autism reported that mothers of autistic children were twice as likely to report a fever during pregnancy than mothers of children without autism. Risks were highest when mothers reported a fever during the second trimester of pregnancy. Researchers behind the study those findings as preliminary and no statistical significance was found when sampling weights were omitted.

A second study found mother of autistic children were more likely to have elevated levels of certain inflammatory markers. A third, which drew from CHARGE data, mothers who had any combination of type 2 or gestational diabetes, chronic hypertension, or pre-pregnancy obesity were significantly more likely to give birth to children with autism or another developmental delay. The fourth and final study examined Cesarean-section births and autism using CHARGE data and found no statistically significant link between birthing method and autism. The research was presented in a press conference at the International Meeting for Autism Research in San Diego, but they have yet to undergo the scrutiny of research published in peer-reviewed medical journals. A study co-author who was interviewed for the story did say many factors were modifiable, so if they are confirmed as autism risk factors, they could be altered.

The article should not be a cause for panic as findings are in the preliminary stage and several health factors like diabetes and obesity carry more dire health risks than a potential autism diagnosis in children. While placing a time frame on when the factors described in the array of studies presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research would be confirmed isn’t the most productive choice with the slow-and-steady nature of study development, a confirmation would be significant. Coupled with the continuous attention given to the dangers of obesity and diabetes, mainstream news outlets would waste no time hyping or even saturating media with such a link. Even if a link is confirmed should these studies exit the preliminary stage, I doubt a significant impact would occur with personal health, with obesity on the rise and a lack of incentive, initiative and resources blocking efforts to combat the problem.

Jenifer Goodwin and articles on studies are quite common this year; this is the third story published by Goodwin that I’ve discussed in 2011. She sorted out a lot of data in a facet of journalism notorious for its difficulty to communicate meaning. Given the story’s nature, fitting results from four studies wasn’t too difficult though, as Goodwin highlighted each piece of data and offered a brief expansion to explain its significance. She tempers the findings by not only including the caution from researchers on the preliminary state of data, but ending the article explaining why such data should be viewed skeptically until more research is conducted.

I don’t expect Goodwin to tackle four studies in one article on a regular basis as the research was presented at a significant event. Such gatherings are prime for swarms of data, analysis and conclusions in an attempt to decipher the mystery of autism. Generally, one study will be spelled out per article, as most are published in peer-reviewed medical journals that are distributed regularly. I don’t foresee supplementary coverage from journalists as the information is still speculative, but the studies may lead to additional examinations on a possible link, either disputing what was found or reinforcing conclusions. Those future developments will be the focus of Goodwin and other news editors as this story evolves.

Questionnaire could answer autism concerns earlier than before

leave a comment »

Courtesy CNN

CNN picked up a story originally published by Health.com reporting that a new study may help detect autism in children as young as 1. The study is a 24-item questionnaire that assesses a child’s ability to communicate via eye contact, sounds and gestures. Warning signs could then be noted, allowing children to receive treatment earlier than current models. The Health.com story lists the average age for a diagnosis at five years old. Although the lack of biological signs for autism can make diagnosing the disability tricky, the questionnaire takes five minutes to fill out and can be scored on the spot.

The checklist doesn’t identify autism spectrum disorder specifically, but will tell takers something is wrong, which may point to autism or another developmental delay. In the study, where 137 pediatricians in the San Diego area screened over 10,000 children, only 32 of the 184 children whose development was below normal were diagnosed with autism. However, 56 were diagnosed with a learning disorder and 9 had another disorder entirely. Overall, the questionnaire’s accuracy level from the study’s data pool was 75 percent.

While the questionnaire doesn’t add the long-awaited biological marker everyone in the autism community, the questionnaire showcased its potential with detecting delays in developmental skills. Although the accuracy rating may make some parents squirm, there may be some satisfaction with its versatility, especially when virtually all medical professionals stress intervention as early as possible. One reason for the accuracy rating may simply be who they screen. Infants and toddlers are far from developing their abilities with motor and communication skills, as opposed to five-year-olds, where deficiencies are easier to detect. Scientific and anecdotal evidence suggest symptoms of autism aren’t clear until a child reaches 18 months of age. While the screening doesn’t specifically evaluate infants under that age, there’s a risk from parents or caregivers making too much out of the questionnaire’s findings and preparing for a disability whose presence can’t be officially identified that early.

The story itself focused on the study’s findings, how they were procured, and its potential for widespread use. Unfortunately, without an author, gauging who contributed to the story is virtually impossible. Most stories will indicate if more than one writer published the article, but stories themselves aren’t structured in different formats when written by a host of writers. The structure of journalism doesn’t change for television, newspaper or magazine writing. Even if writers have a unique approach to writing a story, the editing process will streamline the final version.

Developments on this questionnaire will unfold over time, but the community will eat up almost anything that may give them an edge, even if a wild goose chase ensues.

Seizing a link between autism and epilepsy

with one comment

A new study published in the May issue of Epilepsia shines more light on the link between autism and epilepsy. The findings were picked up by multiple media outlets, including WebMD and U.S. News and World Report, where health reporter Jenifer Goodwin once again broke down the results. Researchers who looked at records of 127 patients aged 3 to 49 who were autistic and had at least one seizure over a 20-year period at the NYU Comprehensive Epilepsy Center in New York City. They found 34 percent of those patients had treatment-resistant epilepsy, meaning seizures continued despite taking medication. 28 percent were seizure-free after treatment and the remaining 38 percent could not be categorized because there wasn’t enough information to determine if their seizures were treatment-resistant or not. The average age of the first seizure in treatment-resistant epileptics was also significantly younger than those whose seizures were treatable (6 for TRE patients versus 11 for patients without TRE). Autistic TRE patients were also more likely to suffer impairments from autism spectrum disorder, as 54 percent of TRE patients had motor skills delays versus 35 percent for those with treatable epilepsy. Autistics with TRE were also more likely to experience developmental regression, which is sometimes noted among parents or other observers following their autistic children. The study’s author, Dr. Orrin Devinsky of the NYU Langone School of Medicine and director of the NYU Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, suggested autistic children may need screening for epilepsy in order to learn more about the connection between the two conditions.

Goodwin has been busy making sense out of study numbers the last couple days. Unlike her last story about a survey of parents on vaccinations and their trust with different sources, Goodwin uses more figures in the autism/epilepsy study to highlight patterns suggesting epilepsy may be more common and severe when it targets autistic people. For those of you wondering why the study sample is small, recall that autism itself is still statistically rare and some people who may be on the spectrum may not have an official diagnosis. Likewise, the number of epileptics in the world is less than one percent, meaning the statistical odds of encountering an autistic with epilepsy are slim. The results of Devinsky’s study will likely spur more investigations on the link between epilepsy and autism if none weren’t already underway, paving the way for more insights on autism and epilepsy or perhaps presenting other information that may not agree with the study Goodwin reports about.

Remember the inverted pyramid I’ve been talking about for the last few posts? It’s hard to miss in this story, with the first piece of data highlighting the percentage of autistics with TRE, then going into other data relating to autism spectrum disorder, then tying the study with the Journal of Child Neurology publication suggesting epilepsy is more prevalent with autistics than previously thought. She does grab a few quotes from Devinsky, the study’s author, but most of the story spells out the study results. That technique is common with stories on studies as reporters follow their deadlines and, depending on the location or mission plan of the news organization involved, finding the human interest source is hard to find with the low odds of a person diagnosed with both autism and epilepsy.

I’m not an epileptic, but I have read about autistic children and adults suffering from seizures in my observation of autism articles and videos. Neither autism or epilepsy may be curable, and the study only begins to excavate a relatively unexplored area of the autism spectrum. With autistics already facing prospects of sensory overload on a daily basis, making the leap to seizures isn’t a stretch. Seeing more stories linking autism and epilepsy should be expected in future media coverage, but knowing when more reports will file in will be a harder task.