“Covert” Neurofeedback Tunes-up the Social Brain in ASD

Young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) thought they were just playing a picture puzzle game while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning. In fact, the game was rigged – by their own brain activity.

The more participants spontaneously activated social brain circuitry known to be under-connected in ASD, the more pieces of a puzzle filled-in to reveal the picture. Since the game was controlled by circuit activity, the participants were unknowingly tuning-up their own brains. Resting state scans following the sessions revealed increased communications between two key networks of the social brain that typically don’t talk with each other enough in ASD. What’s more, participants’ parents noted improvements in their children’s social behavior linked to this boost in circuit connectivity.

Full story at NIMH

Inherited Variations in Noncoding Sections of DNA Associated with Autism

A new study has identified an association between paternally-inherited rare structural variants in noncoding segments of genes and the development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The study, funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and published in Science, adds to a growing body of research describing genetic contributors to ASD.

ASD is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. While the exact causes of ASD are unknown, researchers have identified a number of genes associated with the development of ASD. Many studies have focused on examining the inheritance of, or mutations in, portions of genes that code for the creation of proteins or other molecular products. But these new findings suggest that rare, inherited structural differences in the noncoding portions of genes also contribute to ASD.

“Gene sequences represent only two percent of the genome.” said Jonathan Sebat, Ph.D., of University of California San Diego School of Medicine (UCSD) and the Beyster Center for Genomics of Psychiatric Diseases. “The next challenge is to identify ASD risk variants affecting genetic regulatory elements. Examining these elements will help us understand the genetic components that contribute to the development of ASD, and symptoms seen in people with ASD.”

Full story at NIMH

Suspect Molecules Overlap in Autism, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder

Evidence has been mounting that some mental disorders share many of the same genetic risk factors. Now, researchers have discovered that this overlap extends to the molecular level – some of these suspect genes also turn on-and-off similarly in the brains of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. These molecular signatures may hold clues to what goes wrong in the brain in these disorders—and potentially ways to better treat or even prevent them.

In search of such clues, Drs. Daniel Geschwind and Michael Gandalof the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and colleagues, examined gene expression in postmortem brains of people who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or alcoholism. One of the largest such efforts of its kind to date, the study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), tapped brain molecular data resources gathered through the NIMH-funded PsychENCODE consortium, a data-sharing collaboration among NIMH grantees.

Full story at NIMH

Suspect Molecules Overlap in Autism, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder

Evidence has been mounting that some mental disorders share many of the same genetic risk factors. Now, researchers have discovered that this overlap extends to the molecular level – some of these suspect genes also turn on-and-off similarly in the brains of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. These molecular signatures may hold clues to what goes wrong in the brain in these disorders—and potentially ways to better treat or even prevent them.

In search of such clues, Drs. Daniel Geschwind and Michael Gandalof the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and colleagues, examined gene expression in postmortem brains of people who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or alcoholism. One of the largest such efforts of its kind to date, the study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), tapped brain molecular data resources gathered through the NIMH-funded PsychENCODE consortium, a data-sharing collaboration among NIMH grantees.

Full story at NIMH

Common cerebral white matter abnormalities found in children with autistic traits

Structural abnormalities in the brain’s white matter match up consistently with the severity of autistic symptoms not only in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but also, to some degree, in those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who also have autistic traits.

This is the finding of a new study, published September 6 in JAMA Psychiatry, which highlights evidence supporting the theory that common, underlying brain mechanisms may be responsible for autistic traits seen in both diagnoses.

Led by researchers in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, the new study focused on white matter — nerve bundles that transmit information between brain regions. Researchers say the link between symptom severity and white matter structural patterns was most evident in the region of the brain called the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres and enables communication between them.

Full story at Science Daily

NIH-funded projects aim at improving access, timeliness of interventions

Developing effective, real-world-ready approaches to providing early diagnosis, treatment, and supportive services for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the goal of 12 research grants awarded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). These grants are part of a broad research effort to provide models for the delivery of needed services to children, youth, and adults with ASD, across different communities and care settings, appropriate to each age and individual. NIMH is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

While research has yielded much on understanding the biology of autism, access to effective treatment and services tailored to life stages remains a challenge for people with ASD and their families. In 2013, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services federal advisory group, developed an updated Strategic Plan for Autism Spectrum Disorder Research which identified access to services as a central concern of individuals and families affected by ASD. To foster research on these issues, NIMH solicited applications to study models for ASD service delivery in early childhood, during the transition out of high school, and in adulthood.

Full story of NIH projects at NIMH

Adults with autism at higher risk of sexual victimization, study shows

Adults with autism are at a higher risk of sexual victimization than adults without, due to lack of sex education, but with improved interventions that focus on sexual knowledge and skill building, the risk could be reduced, according to a recent study by York University researchers.

“Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) gain more of their sexual knowledge from external sources such as the internet and the television whereas social sources would include parents, teachers and peers,” says Professor Jonathan Weiss in the Faculty of Health and the CIHR Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research.

The study, conducted by Weiss, and clinical developmental psychology PhD candidates Stephanie Brown-Lavoie and Michelle Viecili, found that the lack of sexual knowledge in adults with autism played a role in increasing the risk of sexual victimization — experiences of sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, attempted rape or rape.

Full story of adult autism and sexual victimization at Science Daily