Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - Dashboard

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - Dashboard

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Update Dr Sumaya Mall (PhD) Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics School of Public Health University of the Witwatersrand

Johannesburg [email protected] [email protected] Acknowledgements: Professor E Susser

Introducing myself An epidemiologist working actively in the field of psychiatric epidemiology. Epidemiologists study distribution of diseases in given populations and

risk factors for these diseases. Best ways to intervene once we better understand causality. Engage with epidemiology of psychiatric disorders including trauma, ASD, addiction, schizophrenia and HIV/AIDS and mental health.

University of the Witwatersrand Structure of todays Autism Spectrum Disorder update 1. Definitions related to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

2. History of ASD 3. The epidemiology of ASD 4. Theory of mind hypothesis of ASD 5. Latest insights into the Autistic Brain 6. Current Interventions

7. Mapping Autism Research on the African continent What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? -Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a group of complex disorders of brain development.

-Varying degrees, of difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviours. -Term Aspergers syndrome refers to a high functioning condition on the autism spectrum.

Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder Onset of ASD symptoms typically occurs by age 3. Symptoms may only manifest by school age. Research has suggested that symptoms can emerge

between the ages of 6 and 18 months. Approximately 4 males are affected for every female. Sex ratio decreases with increasing severity of symptoms. Sex disparity consistent across all studies.

Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder Common ASD associated impairments include intellectual disability, attention deficits, sensory sensitivities, gastrointestinal problems, immune deficits, anxiety and depression, sleep disturbances and seizures.

Fragile X syndrome, Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, Timothy Syndrome and Savant syndrome are common in individuals with ASD. Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

A clinical diagnosis of ASD requires expertise to detect impairment. Changes in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) eliminates sub-types in favour of an all inclusive Social and Communication Deficit

criteria. NIMH RDOC encourages deconstruction of diagnostic categories and a focus on neurobiological features. Tools available for screening for ASD.

DSM V Criteria for ASD Victor the wild boy of Averyon History of Autism Spectrum Disorder

In 1943 a child psychiatrist, Leo Kanner in the USA noticed that 11 of his patients inhabited private worlds, enjoyed rituals, were panicked by change and were often unable to speak. A year later, a psychiatrist in Vienna, Hans Asperger saw four young patients who were disconnected from their families and

others. Aspergers patients spoke fluently, had ability in mathematics and science and he named them little professors (Silberman, 2015)

Dr Leo Kanner Dr Hans Asperger Professor Uta Frith

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen Early Steps in the field Friths work on theory of mind in autism proposes the idea that people

with autism have specific difficulties understanding other peoples beliefs and desires. Collaborative work with Simon Baron-Cohen who was her PhD student. Individuals with autism have weak central coherence, and are better than typical individuals at processing details but worse at integrating

information from many different sources. A neuro-cognitive approach to developmental disorders. Underlying cognitive causes of these disorders and to link them to behavioural symptoms as well as to brain systems.

The epidemiology of ASD The epidemiology of ASD In the USA in 2012, the Center for Disease Control estimated that 1.5% of children aged 8 had ASD.

Finding based on active surveillance and review of health and education records. Community awareness, effective screening tools and possibly new DSM criteria may account for higher prevalence of ASD than previously thought.

Tremendous societal costs including comorbid conditions. The epidemiology of ASD Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA funds large surveys to detect prevalence of ASD in the USA across different groups.

What is required is ascertainment of cases through effective screening and universal definitions. Large sample size and definition of samples. Danger of under-estimating prevalence of ASD. Strong registry allows for the possibility of detecting incidence of

ASD. (Fombonne, 2003) Professor Daniel Geschwind

Genetics a quick recap Genetics a quick recap DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans, present in all cells.

Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria . The information in DNA is stored as a code made up of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). The order, or sequence, of these bases determines the information available

for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences. Genetics a quick recap Gene, a segment of DNA gives instructions to the cell on how to make

a certain protein Chromosomes, a structure of many genes are made from strands of DNA. DNA is wrapped together to form chromosomes. Each cell has 46 chromosomes.

Each gene adds a specific protein to the recipe. Proteins build, regulate and maintain your body. For instance, they build bones, enable muscles to move, control digestion, and keep your heart beating.

What exactly is a human genome? A genome is an organisms complete set of DNA, including all of its genes. Each genome contains all of the information needed to build and maintain that organism.

In humans, a copy of the entire genomemore than 3 billion DNA base pairsis contained in all cells that have a nucleus. How can the message go wrong?

A DNA mutation/variant in one of a persons genes e.g. a sequence change. This change in sequence can change the way that the gene works, for example by changing the protein that is made. A person can be born with a different number of chromosomes i.e.

1 extra or 1 missing. A small part of a chromosome can be missing. Genetics of Autism Spectrum Disorder Since the 1980s there has been interest in the genetic aetiology of

ASD. Genetic aetiology supported by twin studies with heritability estimates in Europe and the USA ranging from 50% to 90% Estimates of recurrence risk among siblings of autistic children range from 3% to 18%.

Reported genes among common variants include those implicated in oxytocin and serotonin transport. (Tick et al, 2016) Why is the locus important?

The discovery of the first autism locus at genome-wide significance means that basically we found a region of the genome that is part of the chromosomes that we inherit that is highly likely to have within it a gene that predisposes to autism. This is the first step in the process of identifying the gene, so therefore it is very important. It is as if you

are looking for a needle in a haystack but youre in a field of a thousand haystacks. Here, weve found the haystack, and now we have to find that needle within the haystack, and we are moving in fairly rapidly now because genetic technology allows us to do this very rapidly. This particular region is on chromosome 17q, that is the long

arm of chromosome 17 Exome analysis in ASD We have spoken about the 3 billion nucleotides or letters of DNA.

Only a small percentage 1.5 percent of those letters are actually translated into proteins, the functional players in the body. The exome consists of all the genomes exons, which are the coding portions of genes.

The term exon was derived from EXpressed regiON, since these are the regions that get translated, or expressed as proteins Exome analysis in ASD The exome (the protein-coding region of the human genome)

represents less than 2% of the genetic code, but contains ~85% of known disease-related variants. Some cases of autism reflect rare, inherited point mutations that existing study designs, often involving families with one or two affected individuals, are not designed to capture.

Partial loss of functioning in particular genes. (Yu et al, 2013) Further complexities in genetic aetiology

Difficulties with studying genetics of ASD as it is very heterogeneous. Measurable components of the disorder, called endophenotypes e.g. language and social behaviour.

We can measure in the unaffected relatives. May be seen in a less critical form. E.g. Child with ASD who is not speaking, his siblings may have some form of mild language delay, We can use that information and measure that to have more power to identify genes.

Lets define gene environment interactions .

Gene environment interactions An environmental risk factor, a high-risk genotype, and a disease of interest. Examples of environmental risk factors include: exposure, either physical (e.g., radiation, temperature), chemical (e.g., polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), or biological (e.g., a virus); a behaviour pattern (e.g., late age

at first pregnancy); or lack of folate. High-risk genotype is broadly defined. (Ottman, 2010) Interplay among genes and environment

Mutagens affect a structural change in the DNA. Gene-gene interactions- environmental exposure could trigger the expression of a gene that in turn modifies other genes. Transcription Factors- proteins that help turn specific genes "on" or "off" by binding to nearby DNA.

Epigenetics-changes in gene expression. Environmental Factors in ASD An intriguing area of ASD aetiology Hampered by myths.

Among the first was that of refrigerator mothers. Brain child of Bruno Bettleheim, a child psychologist. Children with ASD were the product of mothers who were cold, distant and rejecting, thus depriving babies of the chance to "bond properly.

Prof Bruno Bettleheim Dr Andrew Wakefield

The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud In 1998, Andrew Wakefield and 12 of his colleagues published a case series in the Lancet, which suggested that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine may predispose to behavioral regression and pervasive

developmental disorder in children. Despite the small sample size (n=12), the uncontrolled design, and the speculative nature of the conclusions, the paper received wide publicity, and MMR vaccination rates began to drop because parents were concerned about the risk of autism after vaccination. Almost immediately afterward, epidemiological studies were conducted and

published, refuting the posited link between MMR vaccination and autism. The logic that the MMR vaccine may trigger autism was also questioned because a temporal link between the two is almost predestined: both events, by design (MMR vaccine) or definition (autism), occur in early childhood.


Increase in prevalence of ASD has led to interest in environmental risk factors. Autism Birth Cohort (ABC) aimed to explore prenatal or postnatal infection, obstetric risk factors, and dietary and/or environmental exposure to potential toxins during pregnancy and

postnatal life. ABC resources include a serial collection of detailed questionnaires and biological samples for genetic, transcriptomic, proteomic, microbiologic and toxicologic analyses.

Environmental risk factors for ASD Theory of mind hypothesis in ASD Let us revisit the theory of mind hypothesis in ASD

Intention is to link the Theory of Mind Hypothesis to Insights into the Autistic Brain Theory of mind hypothesis in ASD Theory of mind is the ability to infer the full range of

mental states (e.g. beliefs, desires, imagination) of oneself AND others. Deficit in theory of mind is a core cognitive feature in ASD. Example 4 year old children can distinguish between

appearance and reality. Difficult for children with ASD. Basic structure of a neuron

A diagram of a synapse A diagram of a neurotransmitter Interaction between neuron and synapse

Developing Human Brain Baron-Cohens theory of empathy Drawing on his work on theory of mind in ASD, Baron Cohen posed a

theory of empathy in 2011. Suggests an empathy spectrum An empathy neuro-circuitry Theory of human cruelty ASD under-activity in frontal operculum, amygdala and anterior insula.

Interventions ASD Interventions ASD

Interventions ASD A longitudinal study of two cohorts of children referred for possible diagnosis of autism at age two. The sample is now in late adolescence. We are looking at changes in diagnostic features and academic

achievement as well as family well-being. Interventions ASD Evidence- based treatment of core deficits of autism 5 different multi-site randomized controlled trials

parent-implemented treatment of communication deficits in toddlers with autism group treatment of social skills in verbal school age children with autism A pilot project creating a communication treatment specifically

developed for low income families of toddlers and preschool children with autism. Interventions ASD This project seeks to confirm reduced oxytocin levels in an

independent sample of people with Asperger Syndrome. Treatment trials of intravenous oxytocin in autism report benefits for emotion recognition. A nasal spray since this acts directly on the brain.

Mapping ASD Research on the African continent Professor Petrus de Vries Professor Charles Newton

Dr Rosa Hoekstra Dr Angelina Kakooza

So much needs to be done in Africa ! Essa Adam (July 1993-May 2016) In conclusion

Suzie taught me 4 important things in life. First, that you can be happy with absolutely nothing materially. She radiated happiness and in that sense I know she had a good quality of life. Second, that no matter what life throws at you, you can keep your sense of humour and laugh your way through it. Every visit with her I came away happier than I arrived, and buoyed up. She had that special quality.

Third, you can have a deep relationship without words, even without concepts, just by being with another person, holding hands, and connecting. And finally, social policies can try to divide a parent from their child, or a brother and sister from each other, but they wont succeed. The love is too strong. Suzie taught us more than we taught her, and our lives were richer for having shared the journey

with her. (Simon Baron-Cohen)

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