Archive for October, 2010

Siblings of children with autism tend to display quantitative traits

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010 by admin

Children with autism often have siblings with language delays and other, more subtle behaviors that are characteristic of the autistic spectrum.  The Interactive Autism Network conducted a study of more than 1,200 families.  The Interactive Autism Network is an online research registry dedicated to gathering information about autism.

NPR’s Jon Hamilton writes that findings suggest “the genes behind autism in one child may contribute to less serious problems in that child’s siblings.”

The study’s lead author, Dr. John N. Constantino, of Washington University School of Medicine, stated, “Mild symptoms, called quantitative traits, may be confounding studies that compare children with autism to their siblings.  Researchers presume one child is affected, and the other is not, but our findings suggest that although one child may have autism and the other does not, it’s very possible both children are affected to some degree by genes that contribute to autism” (Science Daily).  These quantitative traits are “not strong enough to provoke a diagnosis of autism,” but they appear to be more present in siblings of children with autism than they are in the general population (Science Daily).Eleven percent of families with a child with autism also had a second child that had been diagnosed with the disorder.  Additionally, one in five siblings, or 20%, who did not have autism “had been diagnosed with language delay or speech problems early in life” (Hamilton).  Almost half of those siblings “had speech qualities associated with autism” (Hamilton).  According to Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, these speech qualities include, among other things, “a lack of intonation, a familure to emphasize important words or a staccato delivery of sentences” (Hamilton).

Landa adds, “Not only autism, but autistic traits can run in families.  If you have one child with autism, it’s important to monitor any other children from infancy.”  If there appears to be a problem, that child needs to be professionally evaluated.

The significance of this study cannot be overstated.  Autism is a spectrum disorder; people can be highly affected or not.  Dr. Constantino reiterates, “It’s not an all-or-nothing condition.”  Siblings of children with autism seem to have genetic susceptibility and subtle autistic traits.  An accumulation of quantitative traits provokes a diagnosis of autism; subtler traits of the disorder suggest genetic inheritability of not only autism but its hallmark behaviors.

Autism and the brain

Monday, October 25th, 2010 by admin

Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) hosts an annual continuing education conference to foster understanding of autism spectrum disorders and to provide information about strategies aimed at promoting learning in young children with autism spectrum disorders.  Brainjogging’s founder, Shirley Pennebaker, M.Ed.; cognitive therapist Katie Cyphers, M.A.; and Columbus Learning Center Director Sellers Cook will attend this year’s conference October 28-29, 2010.  In honor of this, Brainjogging’s blog posts this week will be devoted entirely to autism.

In the 1980s, researchers examined the entire brain of a man with autism.  This individual died at age 29.  His brain was sliced into thousands of thin sections and then examined. The brain from a typical man, or one without autism, who died at age 25 was similarly examined as a control brain.

Harvard University’s Dr. Margaret Bauman participated in the research group.  She reported that one main “difference was in the amygdalae, two almond-shaped clumps of cells deep in the brain, one on each side” (NPR).    The amygdalae are vital in processing certain emotional responses, especially fear.  Bauman also pointed out that the brain cells in the amygdala from the autistic brain were “smaller and more densely packed,” indicating that they were underdeveloped (NPR).

In 2006, scientists examined nine brains from people with autism and ten brains from typical people.  The individuals to whom the brains belonged ranged in age from 10-44.

The MIND Institute’s Dr. Amaral stated that brains of people with autism were clearly different in that they had “a decreased number of neurons in the amygdala, and then particularly in one subdivision of it called the lateral nucleus” (NPR).  The lateral nucleus communicates with a part of the brain that controls perception, which might explain why people with autism tend to process information by relying heavily on their own internal sense of body position, rather than visual cues.

Additionally, an underdeveloped amygdala might explain the tendency of an individual with autism to exhibit anxiety; his or her amygdala doesn’t properly regulate fear. Interestingly, “in boys with autism, the amygdala develops early and stops growing around the age of eight, [but] in typical boys, the amygdala continues to grow until age 18” (NPR).

Dr. Amaral says early development in the amygdala accounts for the reduced number of neurons later: while typical brains have about 12 million neurons, brains from individuals with autism average about 11 million.

*Listen to NPR’s podcast of Jon Hamilton’s “New Autism Study Shows Discrepancy in Autistic Brains.”

Soldier Will

Friday, October 22nd, 2010 by admin

Brainjogging strives to provide readers with access to current neurological and behavioral research and parent testimonials – but we also want readers to know our wonderful students!  They bring joy to our lives with their successes and, yes, their humor, albeit often unintentional humor.

Will, a five year old Brainjogger on the autistic spectrum, came in for his Brainjogging training session, during which students are introduced to the program and taught exactly how to use it.  Will promptly introduced his Brainjogging instructor to a vast array of helicopters that he brought from home.  His instructor expressed interest, smiled and said something along the lines of, “Wow, sunshine!  These are awesome!”  She noticed Will’s expression cloud a bit, but the moment passed and they moved along.

This particular instructor tends to refer to her students by numerous nicknames: sunshine, silly billy, buddy, smart girl, smart boy, kiddo, captain, Mr. Man, Mrs. Ma’am, etc.  As the instructor turned on Will’s computer and guided his attention to the Camp Academia, Inc. icon, Will explained that he already knew how to access Brainjogging and that he could do it himself.  His instructor promptly acknowledged his knowledge, exclaiming, “Well done, sunshine!”

Brainjogging’s little soldier, Will.

Will grew grave.  He patted his chest and said, “Soldier Will.”

“Excuse me?” the instructor replied.

Will patted his chest again, “I’m Soldier Will, not ‘sunshine’.”

Will’s father is an active service member; their family lives on Fort Benning.  To date, aside from “soldier,” Will has suffered himself to be called “captain,” but “sunshine” doesn’t fly anymore, and neither does “buddy.”  His instructors are careful to call him only those names that appeal to his sense of civic duty – perhaps one day, with Brainjogging’s help, Will will become the service member to which he aspires!

Preteens can increase quality of life through sports

Thursday, October 21st, 2010 by admin

Brainjoggers must abstain from video games throughout the duration of their therapy; ideally, children encounter Brainjogging, realize the disservice video games do them and never pick up a console again.  Brainjogging encourages students to get outside, run around, jump rope.  We want our students to exercise their minds and imaginations by building with Legos and blocks and imitating life with action figures.

Brainjogging believes you can engage your mind by engaging your body, and ever increasing studies are validating this perspective. A new study by West Virginia University recently conducted a study on young teens and the effect that involvement in sports has on their physical, social and mental well-being.   Dr. Keith Zullig and Rebecca White wanted to find “the relationship between physical activity (including sports participation), life satisfaction and self-rated health concurrently” (Science Daily).  Theirs was the first study conducted exclusively on the middle school population.

Boys reported that “vigorous activity had no effect on either life satisfaction or self-rated health,” but girls “who had taken part in vigorous activity in the last week were significantly more satisfied with their life compared to girls who had not.” Both boys and girls experienced higher life satisfaction when they played on a sports team.  “Boys were five times more likely, and girls 30 times more likely, to describe their health as fair/poor when they were not playing on a sports team.” Zulling and White conclude, “Our study demonstrates the benefits of young sports participation on self-rated and life satisfaction among young youth at a critical juncture in adolescent development.  Our findings suggest that sports team participation may enhance school connectedness, social support and bonding among friends and teammates.”

Turn off the television and shut down the computer

Monday, October 18th, 2010 by admin

British researchers from the University of Bristol found that “more than two hours a day spent watching television or playing computer games could put a child at greater risk for psychological problems” (MSNBC).  More than 1,000 children between the ages of 10 and 11 filled out a questionnaire reporting the amount of time spent daily in front of a television or computer screen and answering questions regarding their “mental state – including emotional, behavioral and peer-related problems” (MSNBC).  Among children that spent longer than two hours a day in front of either a television or computer screen, there was a 60% greater likelihood that these children would experience significant psychological difficulties.  Children that spent more than two hours in front of both types of screens, for a total of at least four hours of screen time split between the two mediums, were 120% more likely to experience psychological difficulties.  Perhaps most significantly, “the effect was seen regardless of sex, age, stage of puberty or level of education or economic deprivation” (MSNBC).The risk of experiencing psychological difficulties increased if children did not obtain an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise daily in addition to the increased screen time.  Increased physical activity did not, however, seem to compensate for the psychological consequences incurred by screen time.  Screen time was the biggest factor attributed to the uptick in likeliness of psychological difficulty; there was a “lack of negative effect for activities such as reading and doing homework,” which are also sedentary, but mentally stimulating (MSNBC).

This is further affirmation that children do not belong in front of televisions or video games.  Children need to encounter their world through tactile and other sensorimotor experiences that compel them to respond to their environment.  Screen time might be an excellent babysitter, but it is not an even remotely acceptable substitute for real-life interaction.  Brainjogging encourages interactive play for children, and absolutely no video gaming!

Children with autism struggle to conceal lies

Thursday, October 14th, 2010 by admin

A Queen’s University study found that “children with autism will tell white lies to protect other people’s feelings and [that] they are not very good at covering up their lies” (Science Daily).  This was the conclusion of a study propelled by psychology professor Beth Kelley and developmental psychology PhD student Annie Li. They conducted two tests for the study.In the first test, “children with autism were told they were going to get a great gift and were then handed a bar of soap.”   Most of the children with autism nodded or said yes instead of telling the researcher that they were disappointed to receive soap instead of a great gift.  Dr. Kelley stated, “The results are surprising, because there is a notion that children with autism have difficulty appreciating the thoughts and feelings of other people, so we didn’t expect them to lie to avoid saying things that may hurt others.”  Kelley’s and Li’s research reveals that children with autism do possess the ability to tell social white lies to protect others’ feelings.

In the second test, “children were given audio clues and asked to guess a hidden object.”  Most test subjects, with and without autism, guessed the easy clues, like a chicken when they heard a chicken clucking.  An intentionally difficult audio clue, Christmas music and an Elmo doll, was used to gauge the ability to lie of children with autism.  The tester left the room after playing the Christmas music, leaving the child alone with the object.  Upon returning, the tester asked the child if he or she peeked at the object.  Children with and without autism “were equally likely to lie that they had not peeked,” but only children without autism realized that giving the correct answer would reveal that they had peeked.  Children with autism were more likely to correctly identify the object, without realizing that knowing the object’s identity would give away that they peeked at the object.

The great news is that children with autism had the presence of mind to consider another person’s feelings and lie about appreciating their gift of soap, despite the fact that they were expecting something far more exciting!  Unfortunately, the test involving audio clues and hidden objects revealed that children with autism were not able to conceal the fact that they peeked at the masked object.  Overall, however, Kelley’s and Li’s study exhibits that children with autism are capable of tuning into others’ feelings, which one might argue is more significant than being able to conceal a lie.

Brainjogging may provide relief to those with a history of cancer

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 by admin

Researchers from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine (UM) recently found that people with a history of cancer “have a 40 percent greater likelihood of experiencing memory problems that interfere with daily functioning, compared with those who have not had cancer” (Science Daily).

Pascal Jean-Pierre, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor at UM, and other researchers conducted a study of 9,819 people, 40 years and older, from various educational and racial-ethnic backgrounds.  Their findings revealed that 1,305 of these participants had a history of cancer, and that fourteen percent of participants with a history of cancer reported memory impairments.  Jean-Pierre refers to these memory impairments as “cancer related cognitive dysfunction.”  Only eight percent of participants who did not have a history of cancer reported similar memory impairment.  Jean-Pierre went so far as to say, “Cancer is, therefore, a key independent predictor of memory problems in the sample studied.”

The precise matter of why cancer seems to lead to cognitive dysfunction is uncertain. Jean-Pierre stated, “These memory issues can be related to treatment, such as chemotherpy, radiation and hormone therapies, or to the tumor biology itself, which could change brain chemistry and neurobehavioral function.”  Brainjogging might be a highly effective component in treating cognitive dysfunction in those with a history of cancer, and thus in treating cancer’s lasting cognitive effects.Jean-Pierre stated, “One of the most important parts of cancer treatment is management of symptoms, such as impairments in attention, memory and fatigue, in order to improve a patient’s quality of life.”

Quality of life, particularly when one is undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and/or hormone therapies, is extremely important.  Brainjogging aids significantly in cognitive processing speeds and retention.  Brainjogging has enabled individuals with Alzheimer’s to increase their retention; it follows that people with a history of cancer and cancer related cognitive dysfunction might increase their level of daily functioning by utilizing Brainjogging to strengthen their memories.

Me, myself and … him? her? I?

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 by admin

There are multiple stereotypes about autism and individuals with the disorder.  The word “autism” comes from the Greek word “autos”, which means “self.”  There is a common misconception that individuals with autism are exceedingly concerned with their personal self, the “autos,” rather than with others.  This stereotype arises from various hallmarks of autism, including the tendency of some individuals with autism to repeatedly discuss things of personal relevance, rather than that which may be of interest to a conversational partner.

One of Brainjogging’s pupils is a particularly darling six year old girl withautism, E., who has been Brainjogging since late 2009.  She continues to impress Brainjogging’s staff with her infinite capacity for spelling and pronunciation – she has a true gift with reading!  Recently, however, Brainjogging instructors have been teaching E. about personal pronouns and how to use them, as she often refers to herself in the third person or uses inappropriate second person pronouns to refer to herself.  Recent research from the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre illustrates some of the cognitive wiring that might be inhibiting E.’s reception of personal pronouns and their application in language.Cambridge scientists found that “brains of individuals with autism are less active when engaged in self-reflective thought” (Science Daily).  Their study, published in the journal Brain, provides insight into potential explanations for why individuals on the autistic spectrum struggle with social difficulties – and for why little E. finds it difficult to distinguish between herself and another individual aloud.  Researchers used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging to measure volunteers’ brain activity; half of the volunteers have an autism spectrum diagnosis.

Dr. Michael Lombardo, one of the Cambridge researchers, asked volunteers “to make judgments either about their own thoughts, opinions, preferences, or physical characteristics, or about someone else’s, in this case the Queen [of England].”  Researchers were able “to visualize differences in brain activity between those with and without autism” by scanning the volunteers’ brains as they responded to each question.  The results are stunning: the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC), which activates when people think about themselves, responded equally to questions about the self and the Queen in autistic volunteers. Typical volunteers’ vMPFC was “indeed more active when [they] were asked questions about themselves compared to when they were thinking about the Queen” (Science Daily).

Lombardo states, “Within the autistic brain, regions that typically prefer self-relevant information make no distinction between thinking about the self or another person.  This is strong evidence that in the autistic brain, processing information about the self is atypical.”

If Lombardo is correct in his suggestion that “processing information about the self is atypical” for individuals with autism, then these individuals must be explicitly taught how to relate to the self versus another individual. This training must include pronouns’ significance and appropriate application.  Teaching individuals with autism how to appropriately identify the self versus others, and others versus the self, will allow them to begin to develop a sense of self; one must first recognize the self as an independent and compelling entity before being able to relate to that self.  Brainjogging strives to teach students with autism how to function successfully – little E.’s journey with pronouns is only one story of many.  Check back to read up on E.’s progress!

A family affair? Autism’s potentially familial traits

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 by admin

Science Daily reports that autism is “highly heritable,” but it is also true that many individuals with autism are born into families that do not show any hallmarks of the disorder; there is mounting evidence that autism may be environmental as well as genetic.  Nonetheless, autism has “considerable genetic and phenotypic heterogeneity” (Science Daily). Most significantly for Brainjogging, “common impairments include deficits in saccades, or rapid eye movements that shift between objects in the field of vision, and smooth-pursuit eye movements, in which the gaze is stabilized on a slowly moving object” (Science Daily).

Abnormal eye movements and other sensorimotor and neurobehavioral impairments appear common in unaffected family members of individuals with autism, according to a report in the August issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

After studying eye movement testing and other assessments of neurobehavioral function in 57 first-degree relatives of individuals with autism, Matthew W. Mosconi, Ph.D., and other colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that “family members of individuals with autism tended to perform more slowly and less accurately on eye movement tasks, including those assessing saccades and smooth-pursuit eye movements” (Science Daily).  These findings suggest that “these alterations within sensorimotor and cognitive brain circuitry may be familial traits” (Science Daily).

Dr. Mosconi’s study revealed that the aforementioned abnormalities

were associated with several brain pathways – including the cerebellar, frontotemporal, striatal and prefrontal circuits – that have been liked to autism, some of which are important for language skills, motor control and executive function, or the control and regulation of behavior. Science Daily.

These findings suggest that many hallmarks of autism are familial traits, to an extent.  Further research must be conducted to determine the degree to which the genetic traits of autism can be manipulated, but Dr. Mosconi has provided the scientific and autistic communities with significant research.  From here, scientists must investigate what leads to autism in some individuals and mere sensorimotor and cognitive brain circuitry impairments in others.

Coffee’s cognitive perks

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 by admin

There is reason to hail coffee as a morning pick-me-up.  Researchers with Medical University at Innsbruck, Austria, found that “coffee improves short-term memory and speeds up reaction times by acting on the brain’s prefrontal cortex” (Gaia Vince). Fifteen volunteers fasted for 4 to 6 hours and abstained from caffeine for 24 hours prior to the study. They were given either a cup of strong coffee or a placebo drink and, after 20 minutes, underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan while completing a memory and concentration test.  The experiment was repeated a few days later, but each participant was given the other drink.The memory tests consisted of participants’ being shown “a fast sequence of capital letters, then flashed a single letter ona screen and told to decide quickly whether this letter was the same as the one which appeared second-to-last in the earlier sequence”  (Vince). Participants responded by pressing the letter “Y” for yes or “N” for no.  All participants “showed activation of the working memory part of the brain,” but “those who received caffeine had significantly greater activation in parts of the prefrontal lobe.”  The prefrontal lobe is involved in “executive memory, attention, concentration, planning and monitoring.”

Although the study is preliminary, it does outline cognitive benefits one can reap from a cup of coffee.  There is no significant evidence as to how long caffeine’s effects last, or what the long term effect of caffeine consumption is.  Nonetheless, “coffee has an effect on specific brain regions involved in memory and concentration that tallies with anecdotal evidence of the drink’s ‘pick-me-up’ effect.”  So go ahead, continue to brew that morning cup.