There's a lot of exciting autism research taking place in Australia currently. And Western Australia, where I live, is punching above weight when it comes to exploration of what may lead to at least some autisms. It is therefore my pleasure to promote below some of these important studies in the hope any family here in Perth who meet the criteria will consider participation.
Over to Andrew Whitehouse -
Over to Andrew Whitehouse -
Autism Research in Western Australia
By Associate Professor Andrew Whitehouse
Head, Autism research team, Telethon Institute for Child Health Research
Over the past decade, Australian research into Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) has seen unprecedented growth, with Western Australia helping to lead this charge.
At the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, our ASD research team is at the cutting-edge of research investigating the possible causes of ASD, and clinical trials seeking to improve the lives of individuals with ASD and their families.
The biological causes of ASD are not yet fully understood and diagnosis is currently based on observations of the child’s behaviour. While we understand that ASD runs in families, the exact causes of the condition remain unknown. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that combinations of genes and environmental factors are involved.
There are several reasons to think that developmental differences in ASD may start prenatally. For example, many parents report that children with ASD show ‘atypical behaviours’ shortly after birth, such as poor eye contact and reduced vocalisations. Furthermore, genetic and neurological factors found to be more common in children with ASD, are known to be involved in very early (prenatal) development.
However, because ASD cannot be diagnosed until early childhood, there is very little known about prenatal development in ASD.
Our preliminary studies have shown that ASD may be associated with two differences in prenatal development - exposure to increased levels of testosterone, and enlarged head circumference.
In research published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, we showed that the children with largest head circumference measurements at 18 weeks gestation were at increased risk of ASD. We concluded that enlarged fetal head circumference relative to body size may be a risk factor for ASD, and while further research is needed, these results may provide insights into the mechanisms underlying atypical brain development in ASD. It is extremely unlikely that a mother has done anything to stimulate the head circumference growth that we found was associated with ASD.
We’ve also been looking at the emerging ‘extreme male brain’ theory - the possibility that exposure to elevated levels of testosterone in-utero may have some bearing on the development of ASD in children. A recent study we published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that male infants exposed to increased levels of testosterone in-utero (measured from umbilical cord blood) were more than twice as likely to have a significant language delay during early childhood.
Given these encouraging findings, we have just launched a world-first study that is seeking to better understand the biological changes that occur during the prenatal period in children later diagnosed with ASD.
The PRISM study is comparing pregnancies in which the mother has had a previous child with ASD (whereby the fetus is at increased genetic risk for ASD) to pregnancies in which there is no family history of ASD. It is our hope that this study will reveal risk factors for ASDs in the period before and soon after the birth of the baby. This may enable the earlier identification of affected individuals and implementation of intensive behavioural intervention programs, which are likely to improve the longer-term outcomes for these children.
We are measuring testosterone levels in the mother’s blood and also from umbilical cord blood. We’ll also closely monitor fetal growth to see if children with ASD grow faster than other children.
Dr Tony Murphy, an obstetrician who is part of our research team, has developed a unique ultrasound scanning technique, which allows us to create an image of the fetal brain at various stages during pregnancy. We are the only group in the world with this technology.
Women who are pregnant, or thinking about becoming pregnant, with or without a family history of ASD, are needed for this study.
Other research conducted within our group including intervention trials, as well as the formation of the Western Australian Autism Biological Registry (WAABR), which is the largest repository of ASD biological information in the Southern Hemisphere. We are also seeking individuals with ASD (and their families) to contribute to this vital research.
Our knowledge of ASD has advanced considerably over the past decade as a result of the worldwide research effort. Recent findings suggest that ASD can be diagnosed at an earlier age. There are also now grounds for thinking that biological compounds or medications will eventually be discovered that are able to overcome or reduce disabling autistic characteristics and behaviours. We are taking a long-term approach towards establishing a strong ASD research program in WA that is closely integrated with ASD clinical services and also the training of future health care professionals providing services to affected individuals and their families.
If you would like to take part in any of Andrew’s research, please contact:
Phone number: 08 9489 7770
For Andrew’s thoughts about the proposed DSM-V criteria for ASD: https://theconversation.edu.au/dsm-v-and-the-changing-fortunes-of-autism-and-related-disorders-5071
For Andrew’s thoughts about the rising prevalence of ASD: https://theconversation.edu.au/do-more-children-have-autism-now-than-before-4497