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Independent Education brings you some of the latest research on autism spectrum disorder – Part one

| March 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life, and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills.1

ASD is now estimated to afflict one in 88 children in the US alone.2 These figures may be alarming, but they are due in large part to faster and more effective diagnoses and a generalised improvement in understanding ASD. This, in turn, has led to a broader range of diagnostic terms including Asperger’s syndrome, which describes children who are high functioning but exhibit milder symptoms of social impairment or learning problems, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

Faster diagnoses on much younger patients

ASD is such a complex syndrome that it frequently takes months to diagnose. Now a Harvard University researcher, Dennis P. Wall, has the ASD study community hot under the collar. Wall, director of the computational biology initiative at the Centre for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and associate professor of pathology at the school, combines computer algorithms with a seven-point parent questionnaire and a home video clip to make a speedy online assessment of whether a child has ASD.

Wall has taken criticism of his model on the chin, saying it has potential for use in rural areas, and that rapid diagnosis of the condition is crucial for treatment. And elsewhere in America, researchers recently disclosed in the American Journal of Psychiatry that they may finally have a tool that will identify the highest-risk infants at just six months old.3 The new test is called fractional anisotropy and measures the density of white matter – the parts of the brain rich in nerve fibres and neural pathways which connect various regions of the brain.

No more keeping mum about dad Testing methods feed into the wealth of new data emerging every day about ASD. New research suggests that older fathers’ age could be linked to the development of the syndrome in their children. The journal Nature suggests that the rise in ASD diagnoses can be linked to the increasing age of dads in the developed world.4

The findings also cast doubt on the long-held belief that the age of the mother is the determining factor in whether or not a child has developmental challenges. The authors of this study say that most of the genetic risk originates in the sperm. Fresh reports on autism frequently cause a stir in scientific circles. When news broke that certain vaccinations could cause ASD,5 it caused raging controversy, with critics labelling believers in such theories as charlatans. These new findings about fathers, however, based on studies conducted in Iceland, have met with approval with a researcher at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut in the US, who describes the research sample as “meticulously characterised”. And everyone agrees that plenty of older fathers will have children without ASD.

Inflamed discussion

Inherited genetic predisposition and environmental factors are also still the subjects of numerous studies about the causes of ASD. A new survey points to inflammation in expectant mothers as a possible cause of at least one-third of ASD cases.6 Some scientists are suggesting that instead of the immune system seeking out and destroying inflammation immediately in utero, the brain is not passing messages along and the inflammation quickly becomes chronic.

This supposition was made after studying the brains of very young children with ASD that consistently showed enlarged cells caused by chronic inflammation and an overabundance of proinflammatory signalling molecules. Supported by a populationwide survey from Denmark, the study was undertaken by Paul Patterson, a neuro-immunity expert at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California.7

The Denmark data revealed that infection during pregnancy increases the risk of ASD significantly – tripling it in the first trimester and adding another 40% risk in the second trimester. Yet while these findings may add another miniscule piece to the puzzle, ASD still has scientists puzzled. For one thing, since the syndrome was first diagnosed by Leo Kanner in 1943,8 ASD diagnoses have increased dramatically. But, simultaneously, viral and bacterial infections are better managed. It may help everyone’s understanding to note, says Patterson, that there are now more infections to fight, such as virulent forms of asthma and various autoimmune problems.

Danish data found that where pregnant women suffered from any persistent low-grade inflammation (including allergies) such as rheumatoid arthritis or celiac disease,9 the risk of ASD rose by as much as 80%. 

Find part two of our report in the next edition.

1. See, for example:
2. Ibid.
3. Park, A. (2012) ‘Brain imaging could detect autism risk in infants as young as 6 months’. Available at:
4. Callaway, E. (2012) ‘Fathers bequeath more mutations as they age.’ Available at: bequeath-more-mutations-as-they-age-1.11247.
5. Walia, A. (2013) ‘22 medical studies that show vaccines can cause autism.’ Available at:
6. Yudell, M. (2012) ‘And the latest cause of autism is … .’ Available at:—–.html.
7. See:
8. Fischbach, G. (2007) ‘Leo Kanner’s 1943 paper on autism.’ Available at:


Category: Autumn 2014

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