The last decade has proven a golden age in autism research. Today researchers are getting closer to truly understanding the epidemiology behind the genetic, neurological, and environmental factors that contribute to the onset of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
The research thus far has provided us an enormous amount of scientific data that is already helping families, autism caregivers, doctors, and children living with ASD to better treat and understand this condition.
Currently there are four areas in autism research that are the most promising today. These significant advances will help identify and treat the intellectual and developmental disabilities caused by ASD.
1. The Brain-Immune System Connection
In a study published in Nature in March 2015, autism researchers discovered a lymph network linking the brain and the immune system. This newly found lymph network has more of a link between the brain and the immune system than previously believed.
So how does this relate to autism research? Researchers of the study believe this new discovery will open up new avenues to understanding the immune system’s role in brain conditions such as autism, alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and more.
While the research is still young, more studies will need to be conducted in the future to see if there is any link to ASD. But, autism researchers are excited about its potential in being able to identify specific mechanisms that may control behavioral and medical issues that may arise in cases of autism.
Research in the field of epigenetics (factors that control gene expression, including genes and environmental factors) is starting to uncover a closer link between genetic and environmental factors that may have an important role in understanding autism.
Epigenetics has already helped us understand the interaction between genetics and environment and how it plays a role in the development of ASD. While epigenetics requires brain tissue for further research, the nonprofit organization Autism Speaks created a brain tissue program called Autism Tissue Program (ATP) in order to help researchers with their studies.
While only small strides have been made in epigenetics, autism researchers agree that more research might lead to possibly discovering how to prevent, or even reduce the risk of autism in the future.
3. Largest-Ever Genome Study
The largest genome study to date is being undertaken by Autism Speaks. The organization helped create ‘MSSNG,’ an open-science database of genome data collection that gives doctors around the world access to 10,000 sequenced autism genomes.
The MSSNG database will help advance autism research at a faster pace by making open-access genomics available to doctors and researchers worldwide. While conducting the study so far, researchers took a sample of 340 whole genomes from 85 families, each with two children with autism. 69% of the children surveyed did not share the same gene variations that are known to contribute to autism, while 31% of children did, changing a long-held belief that siblings have similar at-risk genes for autism; rather, they discovered siblings have different autism-risk genes.
Findings from the research so far challenges the conception that genetic factors are the only contributing factors of ASD. The MSSNG project will be an on-going study that will help autism researchers use the data to report and find even more complex genetic risks to the causes of autism.
4. Detecting Autism Before Diagnosis
A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry concluded that parental concerns of children aged 6-12 who were at high risk for ASD will be able to identify and detect early signs that will aid in earlier intervention therapies.
The study will play a critical role in the development of children with ASD early on, and will provide parents that suspect their children may have autism with information and research on what to look for when the child is young.