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Posts tagged ‘autism’

Autism linked to male hormones

Exposure to high levels of “male” hormones in the womb increases the chance of a baby boy developing autism, according to researchers.

The University of Cambridge researchers say their findings from more than 300 boys help unravel the causes of autism – a condition that affects both sexes but is far more common in males.

But they say it does not mean a prenatal test for autism is near.

Nor will it necessarily be possible to stop autism by blocking the hormones.

The hormones in question – testosterone and three other steroid hormones – were important for foetal development, which meant it could be too risky to block them, they told the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Autism link

But the findings did pinpoint an important window in foetal development when autism might be triggered, they said.

The study authors, Dr Michael Lombardo and Prof Simon Baron-Cohen, looked at stored samples of amniotic fluid – the liquid that surrounds a baby while in the womb – to see if there was anything about this early environment that might explain autism risk.

They found that for 128 boys who later went on to develop autism, levels of steroid hormone in the amniotic fluid that had bathed them as a baby in the womb were, on average, particularly high.

In comparison, far lower levels of steroid hormone were detected in the corresponding amniotic fluid of a control group of 217 boys without autism.

Prof Baron-Cohen said: “This is one of the earliest non-genetic biomarkers that has been identified in children who go on to develop autism.

“We previously knew that elevated prenatal testosterone is associated with slower social and language development, better attention to detail, and more autistic traits. Now, for the first time, we have also shown that these steroid hormones are elevated in children clinically diagnosed with autism.

“Because some of these hormones are produced in much higher quantities in males than in females, this may help us explain why autism is more common in males.”

The study did include some girls, but the researchers say they need to do more investigating to see if a similar association between sex hormones and autism might exist in females.

Steroid hormones influence how instructions in our genetic code – DNA – are translated into making important proteins.

The researchers believe that altering this process in early life when the building blocks for the brain are being laid down may explain how genetic risk factors for autism get expressed or “switched on”.

The exact causes of autism are unknown, although it is thought that genes and environmental factors are involved.

The developmental disorder usually starts to develop in childhood and can cause problems with social interaction, language skills and behaviour.

Prof Richard Sharpe, an expert at the University of Edinburgh, said the work was “an important first step” on the path to discovering what causes autism.

Richard Mills, of Research Autism said: “Despite a growing awareness of the biological and genetic nature of autism, there is currently no agreed biological or genetic marker for autism, with diagnosis made on the basis of early developmental history and behavioural criteria.

“So research that sheds light on this specific area is critical to our understanding of this mysterious and highly complex group of conditions.”

via BBC News – Autism linked to male hormones.

Susan Boyle is part of autism’s ‘invisible generation’

Susan Boyle said she was relieved to have been diagnosed


Scottish singer Susan Boyle has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. She is one of thousands of people who have the condition but were not diagnosed earlier in life.

The National Autistic Society (NAS) Scotland recently warned that there is an “invisible generation” of older people with autism.

The charity said there was still a tendency to associate the condition with children but it estimated that one in five people with autism were over 60.

Until a generation ago, the condition was often misunderstood and misdiagnosed.

Susan Boyle, who is 52, is typical of many, having spent years believing she suffered slight brain damage at birth.

Robert MacBean, from the National Autistic Society Scotland, said a “good diagnosis experience” was very important, regardless of a person’s age.

He said: “A good experience leaves you understanding yourself, understanding what has been happening to you and also allows you to develop your own coping strategies.

“Unfortunately not everyone gets that experience. Some people, if they manage to get a diagnosis, it is after years of waiting and quite often they are left at the end with a leaflet and as they leave they are told ‘don’t worry about having a label’. That’s all the support they get.”

Social interaction
Autism can cause problems with social interaction, language skills and physical behaviour.

To people with the condition the world can appear chaotic with no clear boundaries, order or meaning.

It varies from mild to so severe that a person may be almost unable to communicate and need round-the-clock care.

Asperger syndrome is a milder form of autism, with symptoms that affect social interaction and behaviour.

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Many people do manage to live successful independent lives. Many people can have a family, they can find work”

Robert MacBean
National Autistic Society Scotland
Children with Asperger syndrome are often of average or above intelligence, and may be particularly good at learning facts and figures.

However, they may also lack imagination and find creative play or thinking in the abstract very difficult.

Mr MacBean said the prevalence rate for autism in Scotland was thought to be about one in 100 people, meaning more than 50,000 people would be on the autistic spectrum.

He said children were being diagnosed at school and receiving support, but it was a “complete lottery” whether adults got diagnosed.

Often they were misdiagnosed with other conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, he said.

“Susan Boyle has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which is a form of autism in which people quite often have verbal language, can present very well in terms of communication, but that often masks many of the difficulties they will be experiencing,” he said.

Anxiety and stress
According to Mr MacBean, older people frequently only seek a diagnosis after somebody in the family or someone they know is found to have autism.

He added: “Unfortunately the other way in which people get a diagnosis is through mental health services.

“They will develop what looks like a mental health problem. Some of the people being diagnosed as adults will have been in mental health services for many years and will often have been misdiagnosed, for example with schizophrenia or some other condition.”

Mr MacBean said that the “anxiety and stresses” of living with undiagnosed or unsupported autism can lead to people developing mental health problems.

However, he added: “Many people do manage to live successful independent lives. Many people can have a family, they can find work.

“They may find their interaction in certain situations difficult to deal with but they have learnt coping strategies.

“Quite often what they are really asking for is some basic understanding of themselves and their condition, and also for acceptance and tolerance from other people.

“Many people report they feel intimidated or bullied, often discriminated against because people don’t understand their condition.”

via BBC News – Susan Boyle is part of autism’s ‘invisible generation’.

Autism signs ‘present in first months’ of life

Eye tracking experiments were used to detect signs of autism


Autism can be identified in babies as young as two months, early research suggests.

US researchers analysed how infants looked at faces from birth to the age of three.

They found children later diagnosed with autism had shown diminished eye contact – a hallmark of autism – in the first few months of life.

The findings, reported in Nature, raised hope for early interventions to tackle autism, said a UK expert.

In the study, researchers led by Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta used eye-tracking technology to measure the way babies looked at and responded to social clues.

These early markers are extremely important for us to identify – the earlier we can diagnose a child who has one of these disorders – such as autism – the earlier we can provide intervention and development”

Dr Deborah RibyDurham University

They found infants later diagnosed with autism had shown a steady decline in attention to the eyes of other people from the age of two months onwards, when watching videos of natural human interactions.

Lead researcher Dr Warren Jones told BBC News: “It tells us for the first time that it’s possible to detect some signs of autism in the first months of life.

“These are the earliest signs of autism that we’ve ever observed.”

The study, in collaboration with the Marcus Autism Center and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, followed 59 infants who had a high risk of autism because they had siblings with the life-long disability, and 51 infants at low risk.

Dr Jones and colleague Dr Ami Klin followed them to the age of three, when the children were formally assessed for autism.

Thirteen of the children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders – a range of disorders that includes autism and Asperger’s syndrome – 11 boys and two girls.

The researchers then went back to look at the eye-tracking data, and what they found was surprising.

“In infants with autism, eye contact is declining already in the first six months of life,” said Dr Jones.

But he added this could be seen only with sophisticated technology and would not be visible to parents.

“It’s not something that parents would be able to see by themselves at all. If parents have concerns they should talk to their paediatrician.”

Dr Deborah Riby, of the department of psychology at Durham University, said the study provided an insight into the timing of atypical social attention in children who might go on to develop autism.

Autism spectrum disorders

  • Autism and Asperger’s syndrome are part of a range of related developmental disorders known as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • They begin in childhood and last through adulthood.
  • ASD can cause a wide range of symptoms, which are grouped into three categories including problems with social interaction, impaired communication skills and unusual patterns of thought and behaviour

Source: NHS Choices

“These early markers are extremely important for us to identify – the earlier we can diagnose a child who has one of these disorders – such as autism – the earlier we can provide intervention and development,” she said.

Caroline Hattersley, head of information, advice and advocacy at the National Autistic Society, said the research was “based on a very small sample and needs to be replicated on a far larger scale before any concrete conclusions can be drawn”.

“Autism is a very complex condition,” she said.

“No two people with autism are the same, and so a holistic approach to diagnosis is required that takes into account all aspects of an individual’s behaviour. A more comprehensive approach allows all of a person’s support needs to be identified.

“It’s vital that everyone with autism can access a diagnosis, as it can be key to unlocking the right support which can enable people with the condition to reach their full potential.”

The research is published in the journal Nature.

via BBC News – Autism signs ‘present in first months’ of life.

Induced labour ‘linked to autism’


Children whose mothers needed drugs to start giving birth are slightly more likely to have autism, US researchers say.

A study of 625,000 children, published in JAMA Pediatrics, showed the autism link was stronger in boys.

Scientists have called for more research to explain the difference as it is not clear why there would be a link.

Doctors said inducing labour was safe, necessary and could save a baby’s life.

Autism is thought to be caused by a combination of family, or genetic, risk and conditions in the womb and early life while the child is developing.

Procedure could be life-saving


We don’t want mothers to say, ‘Under no circumstances do I want to be induced because I don’t want a kid with autism’. That would be plain wrong”

Prof Simon Gregory

Duke University

The study of births in North Carolina showed 13 out of every 1,000 boys born, and four per 1,000 girls, developed autism.

However, the rate was a third higher in boys when their mother needed drugs to induce or assist the pregnancy, while any effect in girls was more muted.

Researchers said that two cases of autism in every 1,000 births might be prevented by stopping induction. However, they warned this would come at significant cost as the procedure could be life-saving.

Prof Simon Gregory, of Duke University, said there had been a lot of conflicting evidence on autism and inducing labour, but this study was the largest to look at the issue.

He told the BBC: “We don’t want mothers to say, ‘Under no circumstances do I want to be induced because I don’t want a kid with autism’. That would be plain wrong.

“We’ve found an association and more research is needed. This allows us to focus on the factors around birth that may affect autism and how it develops.”

The study only shows that the rates of autism are higher after being induced. It could be down to the drugs used to begin labour or something else influencing the pregnancy that leads to women needing to be induced and also affects the developing brain.


What is autism?

Autism and Asperger’s syndrome are part of a range of disorders that can cause difficulties with communication and social skills

The conditions can lead to isolation and emotional problems for those living with them

Conditions can vary from very mild, where the person can function easily, to so severe they cannot take part in normal society

The conditions are collectively known as autistic spectrum disorders and affect more than 580,000 people in the UK

What are the symptoms of autism?

‘Good medical reasons’

Labour is often induced when the pregnancy has gone on too long and the mother has missed the due date, normally by at least a week.

Michael Heard, of Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists spokesperson, said: “We induce to improve outcomes. You reduce the chance of losing the baby and the chance of mum and baby getting unwell.

“This is a preliminary statistical overview, with no clear reasoning why the two things should be linked.

“Induction is very common and is offered for good medical reasons and is extremely safe. But like most medical processes there is a small risk associated.

“This is another thing to consider in a long-term study, but not something I’d consider in my practice.”

Carol Povey, of the National Autistic Society, said: “Autism is a complex condition and is thought to be the result of many different underlying physical and genetic factors. Its exact causes are still being investigated.

“The scientists who conducted this study acknowledge that further research is required before any hard and fast conclusions can be drawn.

“It’s therefore important that people do not jump to conclusions about this study and its implications.”

via BBC News – Induced labour ‘linked to autism’.

Five psychiatric disorders ‘linked’

An unhappy young woman

Experts are trying to understand what is happening in the brains of people with psychiatric disorders


Autism, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia all share several genetic risk factors, according to a major study.

Versions of four genes increased the odds of all five disorders.

Researchers hope to move the psychiatry away from describing symptoms towards fundamentally understanding what is going wrong in the brain.

The findings were reported in the Lancet medical journal.

The international study compared the genetic codes of 33,000 people with a psychiatric disorder with 28,000 people without a psychiatric disorder.

Four genetic variants appeared to increase the risk of all five disorders studied. Two genes were involved in the balance of calcium in the brain.

Hundreds of genes and the environment are likely to affect the odds of developing such conditions.

However, the rapidly advancing field of psychiatric genetics is trying to describe these disorders on the basis of what is causing them, rather simply by symptoms.

One of the researchers Nick Craddock, a professor of psychiatry at Cardiff University, said: “It signals the opening of a potential new era for psychiatry and mental illness.

“This is a scientific method that helps understand what is going wrong in the brain, the chemicals, the brains systems, that are important in illness.”

He said that ultimately it could help devise treatments and better ways of diagnosing patients.

Dr Gerome Breen, from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, said: “It points out fairly clearly that there is a common genetic effect between these disorders.

‘Breakthrough elusive’

“These studies give a window into the biology of these disorders, that’s really valuable.”

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity Sane, said the findings “highlight the need to understand the genetic and biological factors of these life-changing conditions, in order that more effective treatments and therapies may be found”.

She added: “While it may take a decade for research studies like this to translate into new drugs and other treatments, we may yet be working towards a breakthrough which has so long eluded scientists working in this field.”


Children ‘may grow out of autism’

Four-year-old boy with autism
Is a label of autism lifelong?

Some young children accurately diagnosed as autistic lose their symptoms and their diagnosis as they get older, say US researchers.

The findings of the National Institutes of Health study of 112 children appears to challenge the widely held belief that autism is a lifelong condition.

While not conclusive, the study, in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, suggests some children might possibly outgrow autism.

But experts urge caution.

Much more work is needed to find out what might explain the findings.

Dr Deborah Fein and her team at the University of Connecticut studied 34 children who had been diagnosed with autism in early childhood but went on to function as well as 34 other children in their classes at school.

Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes”

Dr Thomas InselDirector of the National Institute of Mental Health

On tests – cognitive and observational, as well as reports from the children’s parents and school – they were indistinguishable from their classroom peers. They now showed no sign of problems with language, face recognition, communication or social interaction.

For comparison, the researchers also studied another 44 children of the same age, sex and non-verbal IQ level who had had a diagnosis of “high-functioning” autism – meaning they were deemed to be less severely affected by their condition.

It became clear that the children in the optimal outcome group – the ones who no longer had recognisable signs of autism – had had milder social deficits than the high-functioning autism group in early childhood, although they did have other autism symptoms, like repetitive behaviours and communication problems, that were as severe.

The researchers went back and checked the accuracy of the children’s original diagnosis, but found no reason to suspect that they had been inaccurate.

boy with autism
Symptoms may be masked as they learn how to adapt to their condition

Label for life?

The researchers say there are a number of possible explanations for their findings.

It might be that some children genuinely outgrow their condition. Or perhaps some can compensate for autism-related difficulties.

Dr Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said: “Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes.


  • People with autism usually have difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination
  • It is a spectrum condition meaning while all people with autism share certain difficulties, the condition affects them differently
  • There are over 500,000 people with autism in the UK – that’s one in every 100
  • There is no cure but there are a range of interventions available

Source: NHS Choices

“Subsequent reports from this study should tell us more about the nature of autism and the role of therapy and other factors in the long term outcome for these children.”

It could be that autism cannot always be accurately defined or diagnosed, particularly since the condition affects people in different ways.

Indeed, experts have disagreed about what autism is.

The American Psychiatric Association is currently revising its diagnostic manual – the “bible” for doctors that lists every psychiatric disorder and their symptoms.

Its new version proposes changes he UK’s National Autistic Society says could affect the way diagnoses will be given to people on the autism spectrum.

With intensive therapy and support, it’s possible for a small sub-group of high functioning individuals with autism to learn coping behaviours and strategies which would ‘mask’ their underlying condition”

Dr Judith GouldNational Autistic Society

Instead of using the current terms of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder and PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified), people will be given an umbrella diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder”.

And their impairments will be reduced to two main areas – social communication/interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities.

Most diagnoses in the UK are based on the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), published by the World Health Organization, which is up for revision in 2015.

According to the National Autistic Society, more than one in every 100 people, more than 500,000 people in all, in the UK have autism.

About a fifth, an estimated 106,000, are school-aged children.

Dr Judith Gould, director of the National Autistic Society’s Lorna Wing Centre for Autism, said: “Autism is a lifelong disability affecting the way that people communicate and interact with others.

“This study is looking at a small sample of high functioning people with autism and we would urge people not to jump to conclusions about the nature and complexity of autism, as well its longevity.

“With intensive therapy and support, it’s possible for a small sub-group of high functioning individuals with autism to learn coping behaviours and strategies which would ‘mask’ their underlying condition and change their scoring in the diagnostic tests used to determine their condition in this research.

“This research acknowledges that a diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time and it is important to recognise the support that people with autism need in order to live the lives of their choosing.”

She said getting a diagnosis could be a critical milestone for children with autism and their families, often helping parents to understand their children better and helping them to support their children in reaching their full potential.


Small babies at higher risk of autism

Monday, Jul 02, 2012

NEW YORK – Babies born small or prematurely go on to develop autism at higher rates, although the risk is still small, according to a new study from Finland.

The research is part of a global push to identify the culprits behind the developmental disorder and the recent uptick in its occurrence, which has had scientists scratching their heads for years.

“Previous reports of how birth weight or gestational age is associated with autism have not been consistent,” Dr. Andre Sourander, a psychiatrist at Turku University, told Reuters Health by email.

“Because autism spectrum disorders are one of the major challenges in child mental health it is extremely important to get more understanding of its causes,” Sourander said.

Autism spectrum disorders, which range from mild Asperger syndrome to severe mental retardation and social disability in childhood autism, are diagnosed in about one in 88 children in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new results, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, are based on almost two decades’ worth of data from more than one million births in Finland.

As of 2005, the rate of autism in the Northern European country was 9 per 10,000 children in Finland, whereas Asperger was diagnosed in 14.5 children out of 10,000.

After accounting for the mother’s age, smoking, number of previous births and other factors, Sourander’s team found an increased risk of autism, but not Asperger syndrome, in preemies and babies that were very small at birth.

For instance, those who weighed less than 1,500 grams, or 3.3 pounds, at birth had three times the odds of developing autism.

However, because autism is relatively rare, most children who are born very small don’t end up with autism, said Sourander.

No one is certain why some children develop autism spectrum disorders, but scientists assume it’s caused by an interplay between genes and environment, such as infections or other medical problems during pregnancy.


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