Couple searching for answers to autism

Husband, wife team two of the country's leading autism researchers


The statistics are shocking. One out of 88 children born today will be diagnosed with autism by the time they are eight years old. A married couple, who are two of the country's leading autism researchers, tells us what they're doing right now to help cut that number.

Luca was just 18 months old when his mom noticed something was just not right.

"Repetitive motions and, you know, getting frustrated," said Tracy Sekhon, Luca's mom.

He was diagnosed with autism. The husband and wife team of Dr. Eric Courchesne and Dr. Karen Pierce are working hard to help kids like Luca.

"What we discovered recently is that the child with Autism has 67 percent more brain cells," said Eric Courchesne, PhD, professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego.

Those cells are in the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain important for social, emotional, and language functions. The doctor believes something happens in the second trimester when brain cells are being formed. Another issue, the CDC says the average age of diagnosis is four years old.

"We know that that's really too late," said Karen Pierce, PhD, associate professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego.

That's why Pierce is attacking the problem two ways.

"I developed this eye tracking test," Pierce said.

Babies watch a one minute movie. On one side of the screen, kids are dancing, on the other side, moving geometric shapes.

"They will fixate on that and they won't look at the social images and when a baby does that, um, so far, that's been 99 percent accurate that that child is actually going to be on the spectrum," Pierce explained.

She's also using imaging to show abnormalities in children's brains. The earlier the diagnosis, the earlier the treatment, and a better chance kids like Luca have a normal life.

Pierce was in the running in 2012 for Time magazine's most influential people for her work in the field of diagnosing autism. She says the goal of the team's research is to discover an autism test that could give a diagnosis at birth.

Additional Information:

BACKGROUND:  Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life, mostly affecting boys.  It affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills.  A report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that autism is more common than we thought.  Doctors believe that the increase in autism is due to a newer definition.  The term "autism" now includes a wider spectrum of children.  For example, thirty years ago, a child with autism may have been thought to be strange; now that child would be diagnosed with high-functioning autism.  Most of the time, parents can suspect that there might be something wrong when the child is 18 months.  They might notice that their child has difficulties with social interactions, pretend play, and communicating verbally and nonverbally.  The exact causes of autism are unknown, but research has led the scientific community to believe that genetic factors seem to be important.  Identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins or siblings to both have autism.  Similarly, language abnormalities are more common in relatives of autistic children.  Chromosomal abnormalities are more common in families with autism.  Other suspected causes (but not proven) include: diet, mercury poisoning, digestive tract changes, vaccine sensitivity, and the body's inability to properly use vitamins and minerals.  (Source:  www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)


SYMPTOMS:  Most children who have autism appear normal before one or two and then they suddenly "regress."  Symptoms can include: being overly sensitive in hearing, sight, touch, smell, or taste; performing repeated body movements; and having unusual distress when their routine changes.  The symptoms will vary from moderate to severe.  Children will have communication problems as well.  They include:  repeating words they memorized (such as commercials); the inability to maintain a social conversation; language develops slowly; communicates with gestures; a slow language development; does not point to direct others' attention to objects; does not adjust gaze to look at objects that others are looking at; and does not refer to their self correctly (for example, says "you want cookies" instead of "I want cookies").  Social interactions can signal autism too; for example, if they are withdrawn, show a lack of empathy, does not make friends, treats others as if they are objects, prefers to be alone, and does not play interactive games.  (Source:  www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)


TREATMENTS:  There are a wide range of available treatments for autism.  The most commonly used treatments include Pivotal Response Training (PRT):  Floor Time, Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), and Discrete Trail Training (DTT).  "Behavioral" therapies focus on the principles of behavior and attempt to teach children skills by providing specific cues and consequences for behavior in order to teach them new skills.  Therapies based on a "developmental" model focus on identifying a child's current ability level and guides them through a sequence of learning experiences that become more developmentally complex across time.  (Source: www.autism-center.ucsd.edu)


NEW RESEARCH:  Research at the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence focuses research on the causes of Autism.  The studies focuses on Diffusion Tensor Imaging, that lets them look into the microstructure of white matter in the brain; Structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which reveals the neural underpinnings of autism; Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to help map activity in the brain; genetics; brain tissue; and stem cell.  Scientists made a big discovery when they found that a child with Autism has 67 percent more cortical cells, a type of brain cells only made before birth.  The study compared postmortem tissue from the prefrontal cortex of seven boys, ages 2 to 16, who had autism, to six developing boys.  This gives the scientific community more avenues to research.  (Source: www.autism-center.ucsd.edu)