The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Autism on the brain

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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.

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I’m pregnant with an autistic child

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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.