Young child plays with blocks

Autism

HEALTH INFORMATION

Investigating the effects of early intervention

WHAT WE KNOW

Autism spectrum disorders appear very early in a child’s life, generally before the age of three, and are characterised by problems in the following areas of development: social interaction, communication skills, and Individual children with autism spectrum disorders may present with very different sets of symptoms, and with widely varying degrees of severity.

Autism affects approximately 1 in 160 individuals, and is more common in males than females.  It is a neurodevelopmental disorder which usually appears very early, before the age of 3 years.   Symptoms of autism include problems in social communication, both verbal and non-verbal, difficulties understanding of what other people are feeling or thinking, and having restricted ranges of interest or difficulty tolerating change. Some level of intellectual disability frequently accompanies autism. Many individuals with autism also have problems with being either more or less sensitive to sensory stimuli such as sounds, light, and textures; difficulties with sleep; and high levels of anxiety or difficulty concentrating.

Autism is very heterogeneous, both in which symptoms most affect a person, and the severity of symptoms. While autism affects most people throughout their lifespan, the course can be quite different for different people, with some having significant improvement in symptoms as they get older, while other remaining unchanged or developing new problems such as seizures. People with autism can also develop other mental health problems, such as depression.

While we do not know exactly what causes autism, it likely comes about through a combination of genetic and environmental factors that affect the developing brain. Over a hundred different genes have been associated with the risk for autism. The current name “Autism Spectrum Disorders” reflects the likelihood that what we call autism probably represents a range of neurodevelopmental syndromes that may have different causes. One of the great challenges for research in autism is to try to better understand how differences between individuals with autism relate to how they respond to different kinds of interventions.

OUR LATEST RESEARCH

Identification and characterisation of ST8SIA2: a generalised mental illness susceptibility gene

Together with Professor Peter Schofield (NeuRA) and Professor Philip Mitchell (Black Dog Institute), our group is investigating the genetic contributors to bipolar disorder using Australian families with multiple individuals who have been diagnosed with the disorder.

The group previously identified a bipolar susceptibility locus located on chromosome 15 in a pooled analysis of 35 families. More detailed analysis of this region has identified a single gene, which confers an increased susceptibility to both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and has also been implicated as a risk factor for autism.

The group is now aiming to understand how alterations in ST8SIA2 translate into an increased genetic susceptibility by characterising alterations in the DNA, RNA and protein product of this gene and its interaction partners in patients with either bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

A functional near-infrared spectroscopy study of early intervention for children with autism

The aim of this study is to determine whether the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), an early intervention program for preschool aged children with autism, affects developmental changes in brain activity.

An MRI study of intervention outcomes in children with autism

The proposed study will evaluate primary school aged children with Autism Spectrum Disorders to determine whether baseline measures of brain structure and function can contribute to predict response to interventions such as school based programs.

What else is happening in Autism research at NeuRA?

FEEL THE BUZZ IN THE AIR? US TOO.

Ten siblings. One third live (or have passed away) with dementia.

The scourge of dementia runs deep in Lorna Clement's family. Of the eleven children her dear parents raised, four live (or have passed away) with complications of the disease. Her mother also died of Alzheimer's disease, bringing the family total to five. This is the mystery of dementia - One family, with two very different ageing outcomes. You will have read that lifestyle is an important factor in reducing the risk of dementia. We also know diet is a key factor, and an aspect that Dr Ruth Peter's is exploring at NeuRA. Along with leading teams delivering high profile evidence synthesis work in the area of dementia risk reduction, Dr Peters has a particular interest in hypertension (that is, high blood pressure) and in the treatment of hypertension in older adults. “We have known for a while that treating high blood pressure reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, but it is becoming clearer that controlling blood pressure may also help to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Now we need to know what the best blood pressure is to protect brain health.” You are invited to read more about Lorna's story and Dr Peter's work, by clicking 'Read the full story' below. Please support dementia research at NeuRA Will you consider a gift today to help Dr Peter's unlock the secrets of healthy ageing and reduce the risk of dementia? Research into ageing and dementia at NeuRA will arm doctors and other medical professionals with the tools they need to help prevent dementia in our communities. Thank you for your support.
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