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  • richardmitnick 1:46 pm on January 20, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, Developing New Technologies to Extend Care to All Families Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder, , THE BIG IDEA,   

    From UC Davis: “Developing New Technologies to Extend Care to All Families Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder” 

    UC Davis bloc

    From UC Davis

    January 14, 2019
    Katherine Lee

    UC Davis Has the Big Idea to Make It Happen

    The prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has almost tripled since 2000, affecting one in 59 children identified in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


    “Everyone knows someone affected by autism. It’s time for us to take responsibility for the growing number of families in need of quality care,” said Leonard Abbeduto, director of the UC Davis Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (MIND) Institute.

    The MIND Institute, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, was founded by families for families to advance scientific discovery and improve access to interdisciplinary, cutting-edge care. The Institute’s mission is “to use the best science we can to help as many families as we can.”

    Although ASD is a lifelong condition, effective treatments can reduce the disabilities associated with ASD and lead to happier, more fulfilling lives for families and individuals, but these treatments must be made more widely available. Currently, gaps in access to providers and affordable care make it especially hard for families who come from under-resourced populations or rural areas. Moreover, gaps in care delay early identification and intervention, affecting developmental outcomes.

    “Families in rural areas and other underserved communities may not be able to see experts without traveling long distances, which creates a financial burden and can delay treatment,” explained Abbeduto, who is also the champion of the Autism, Community and Technology Big Idea. “Technology can be used to overcome such barriers and get help to families in need everywhere.”

    This Big Idea will harness the university’s unique strengths in health, neuroscience, engineering, education, community engagement, and social sciences, involving a variety of disciplines and perspectives to find innovative solutions for ASD.

    UC Davis’ Big Ideas are forward-thinking, interdisciplinary programs and projects that will build upon the strengths of the university to positively impact the world for generations to come. Researchers, scientists, clinicians and others are working on innovative and ambitious initiatives in the field of health, sustainability and more to solve both California’s and the world’s most pressing problems.

    The Autism, Community and Technology Big Idea will pioneer a first-of-its-kind lifespan approach for everyone living with autism. By building partnerships with communities, driving innovation in affordable and accessible technologies, and training doctors, nurses, teachers, employers, and family members, UC Davis will create new ways of advancing science and helping people with autism.

    “Every field of study will be relevant to adding its expertise and creativity to the solutions being proposed by this idea,” added Abbeduto. “However, without donor support, we won’t be able to help families in the way they deserve.”

    UC Davis poised to address urgent needs

    Home to more than 50 faculty and staff across five UC Davis schools and colleges, the MIND Institute will be a hub for the Big Idea, bringing together experts from various disciplines, as well as community groups, businesses, and families, to address autism on a grand scale. This expert knowledge will then be used to train doctors, nurses, teachers, employers and community leaders throughout the country. Such partnerships will address the needs of underserved populations and the unique challenges they face, using innovative technologies and solutions to help individuals living with autism and their families across communities.

    One such partner is Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, director of the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities. For more than 10 years, he has worked on projects with the MIND Institute to improve access to and utilization of services for families affected by autism, fragile X syndrome and other developmental disabilities.

    “When there is an urgent need such as this, we need big ideas to make real progress in advancing solutions,” Aguilar-Gaxiola said.

    Aguilar-Gaxiola and his team serve Solano County and other areas in California and focus on Latino, Filipino, LGBTQ and other diverse families as well as those who are low income or for whom English is not their first language. Children in these populations tend to be diagnosed with autism later than urban or white families – leading to delayed treatment and worse outcomes over time.

    “Some families live two to three hours away from providers, with more than one child with autism at home, so it is critically important for UC Davis to reach them where they are,” Aguilar-Gaxiola said.

    Telemedicine expands access to care

    Telehealth, which is remote access to health services and provider care, makes it possible for UC Davis to care for families affected by autism and other ASD conditions no matter where they live. The face-to-face interaction in their own home through video conferencing, and the use of other technology, allow parents to affordably receive direct feedback and input on how to improve interactions and build important skills in their child.

    The use of telemedicine more broadly and effectively can improve ASD screening and offer treatments in a variety of spoken languages and to families in all areas across California and the country.

    Many children with ASD have challenging behaviors or problems with the change of routine associated with travel. Technology allows these families to overcome this access barrier, bringing care into their own home.

    Abbeduto recalls several patient families who were empowered through telemedicine. During a three- to four-month video conference training series with team members at the MIND Institute, these families learned how to become their child’s language therapist and were empowered to contribute to their child’s care. They were given strategies to support their child’s language development and to reduce the kinds of behaviors that impede social interaction.

    “Originally, family members were skeptical that they would be able to engage their child in play for longer periods of time by themselves,” Abbeduto said. “But at their exit interviews, without exception they each talked about how close they felt to their child and the unexpected positive changes in their life.”

    He concluded, “This kind of knowledge helps parents and caregivers overcome the need to depend on someone else to help their family. It allows them to feel more connected and competent and have more impact on their children.”

    Fostering independence and opportunity

    As part of the Big Idea, the MIND Institute is also developing interventions for adolescents and adults, a subgroup of individuals living with ASD who often experience a sudden lack of services after high school.

    Technology will allow interventions from the MIND Institute to better address the needs of these individuals. Virtual reality, apps, artificial intelligence and facial recognition software will be further developed and tested to support positive behaviors in communication and social skills needed for daily life.

    “We can use advances in technology to continue to monitor and support individuals living with autism so they can have fulfilling jobs and take part in a wider range of social activities throughout their lifespan,” explains Abbeduto.

    Furthermore, virtual support groups could connect individuals with autism or their families to additional social skills workshops, helping them move to independence and easing some of the burden on caregivers. Smart homes, for example, could be used to provide prompts for when it’s time to take medication or a bath, and give cues for getting ready for work or making a meal. Autism experts partnering with engineers could also utilize robotics to realize new ways of providing therapies and medications.

    The vision of this Big Idea will extend the reach of this technology, employing it in communities where experts in autism or specialized services are limited or non-existent. Through virtual conferences or workshops, UC Davis will be able to train the next generation of providers, teachers and administrators. This will empower and promote positive change at the individual level and create opportunities at a systems level.

    “Through this Big Idea, and with the help of donors, we will be able to create technologies that will take the expertise of the MIND Institute and extend its reach all over the world,” said Abbeduto. “It has the ability to make a positive impact on families everywhere.”

    See the full article here .


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    UC Davis Campus

    The University of California, Davis, is a major public research university located in Davis, California, just west of Sacramento. It encompasses 5,300 acres of land, making it the second largest UC campus in terms of land ownership, after UC Merced.

  • richardmitnick 11:56 am on January 8, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, ,   

    From Science Alert: “One of The Most Common Assumptions About Autism May Be a Complete Misunderstanding” 


    From Science Alert

    8 JAN 2019


    Putting yourself in another person’s shoes is never easy, and for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the practice is thought to be especially challenging.

    But even though this neurological condition is often considered a barrier to understanding complex emotions,recent research suggests this may be nothing more than a simple misunderstanding.

    For the first time, researchers have shown in a small study that adults with ASD can recognise regret and relief in others just as easily as those without the condition, and in some cases, they are even better at it.

    “We have shown that, contrary to previous research that has highlighted the difficulties adults with autism experience with empathy and perspective-taking, people with autism possess previously overlooked strengths in processing emotions,” says senior author Heather Ferguson, an expert in neurolinguistics, semantics and syntax at the University of Kent.

    Using state-of-the-art eye-tracking methods, the researchers analysed 48 adult participants – half with ASD and half without – as they read a story about a character who experiences either regret or relief.

    In the narrative, the protagonist makes a decision that results in either a good outcome or a bad outcome, and the final sentence sums up the character’s mood explicitly, saying whether their choice left them feeling regret or relief (for instance, “… she feels happy/annoyed about her decision… “).

    As predicted, when the final emotion did not match up with the rest of the story (for instance, “she bought new shoes that she loved, and she felt annoyed about her decision”), the majority of participants spent longer reading through the text. They also looked back at previous sentences more often.

    There was only one plausible explanation: the readers were trying to make sense of a story that didn’t make sense.

    Because they understood the protagonist’s desires and actions, most of the readers were able to predict whether the character would feel regret or relief – a psychological concept called counterfactual thinking.

    Previous studies have shown that this sort of thinking can be disrupted in people with ASD, but the new findings suggest something completely different.

    Instead, the results were surprisingly similar for both adults with ASD and adults without ASD. Not only were participants with ASD equally adept at recognising regret, they were actually faster at computing relief.

    Together, this suggests that adults with ASD are remarkably savvy when it comes to feeling empathy and processing emotions.

    “Thus, our findings reveal that adults with ASD can employ sophisticated processes to adopt someone else’s perspective, and use this in real-time as the reference for future processing,” the authors conclude.

    At first, the results appear to fly in the face of previous research – and it’s a small study, so we can’t get too carried away just yet. But when taking a closer look, there is another explanation.

    The authors think that the differing results may simply stem from the method.

    By removing the need for participants to describe their own emotions or the emotions of others, the new research takes a more direct route to the truth.

    Using eye-tracking, the authors were able to tap into a participant’s immediate, neurological response to emotional content. This is a useful technique because it completely cancels out the bias that a participant might exhibit when describing their understanding of another person’s emotional state.

    The authors are therefore suggesting that adults with ASD can implicitly and correctly read another person’s emotions, they just aren’t able to accurately describe those emotions to researchers.

    In other words, the past studies on counterfactual thinking may have simply been conflating expression with understanding.

    “These findings suggest that the previously observed difficulty with complex counterfactual emotions may be tied specifically to difficulties with the explicit expression of emotions rather than any difficulty experiencing them implicitly at a neurocognitive level,” the authors conclude.

    This study has been published in Autism Research.

    See the full article here .


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  • richardmitnick 11:14 am on October 26, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, , VR   

    From Science Magazine: “Virtual reality could show others what autism feels like—and lead to potential treatments” 

    From Science Magazine

    Oct. 26, 2018
    George Musser


    As part of a virtual reality simulation, this everyday scene has been distorted with some of the various effects—overexposure, blur, enhanced edges, heightened contrast, color desaturation, and visual snow—that people with autism often report experiencing. Yukie Nagai

    The forest is still—until, out of the corner of my eye, I notice a butterfly flutter into view. At first it is barely perceptible, but as I watch the butterfly more intently, the trees around it darken and the insect grows brighter. The more I marvel at it, the more marvelous it becomes, making it impossible for me to look away. Before long the entire forest recedes, and the butterfly explodes into a red starburst, like a fireworks display. Everything goes dark. Then, dozens of white dots swarm around me. On my left, they are just dots. On my right, they leave long trails of spaghetti-like light. The contrast makes me acutely conscious that the present is never experienced as a mathematical instant; it has some duration, and the perception of that can vary with context.

    The sensation evaporates as soon as I take off my headset.

    This immersive virtual-reality (VR) experience was a preliminary look at Beholder, an art installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in September that sought to recreate how autistic people perceive the world. It is now on display at the gallery that commissioned it, Birmingham Open Media. The project’s creator, Matt Clark, has a severely autistic 15-year-old son, Oliver. “He can’t talk; his behaviors are extremely challenging,” says Clark, creative director of United Visual Artists, an art and design group based in London. Clark built Beholder so he and others could see the world through his son’s eyes. He collaborated with artists who either are on the spectrum or have family members who are.

    The project exemplifies a new approach to the use of VR for autism. For more than two decades, scientists have experimented with the technology to set up controlled scenarios to study autistic traits. At the same time, some teams have used VR to create role-playing environments for practicing social skills. Increasingly, however, people with autism are using VR to convey their own experiences, both to raise awareness of the condition and to capture the cognitive and perceptual differences that characterize it. Some experts hope these efforts will lead to new research collaborations and applications.

    These immersive experiences are, in many ways, the digital equivalent of Temple Grandin’s narratives, which were among the earliest first-person descriptions of autism. A dozen or so projects that can be viewed online use loud noises or flashing lights to try to reproduce sensations such as sensory overload at a shopping mall, office meeting or family get-together. Slightly more elaborate efforts, such as the trailer for Carly Fleischmann’s book, Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism, and the animation Listen, layer the effects over a storyline. But a few are especially ambitious in aiming to provide specific sensory impressions. Examples of the latter are Beholder and an augmented-reality system created by researcher Yukie Nagai and her colleagues at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Osaka, Japan.

    Proponents of VR argue that no other medium comes as close to putting you in someone else’s shoes. “Having a perceptual experience—that’s something we haven’t been able to do without VR,” says Albert “Skip” Rizzo, research professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and a pioneer of using VR in psychiatry. “You can watch a movie, but it’s different than walking around and having your perceptual experience,” Rizzo says.

    These projects are not uncontroversial, however. So-called ‘disability simulation exercises’—blindfolding people to demonstrate vision impairment or making them use crutches to appreciate mobility challenges—are mainstays of diversity training. But they fail to capture the social isolation that is often part of a disability, and they can evoke pity and condescension, driving people apart rather than together.

    Simulations of autistic experience have been met with a similar ambivalence. They also must confront the basic metaphysical question of whether subjective experience is something that can ever be shared. “I can understand that a neurotypical parent might be desperate to understand their autistic child’s point of view,” says Susan Kruse, gallery supervisor at Birmingham Open Media, who is autistic. “But how can anyone get inside another person’s mind and experience what they experience?”

    Virtual experiments

    Autism therapists and researchers started to use VR in the mid-1990s, not long after headsets became widely available to consumers and other forms of immersion, such as first-person shooter games, became popular. Researchers often deployed the technology to create virtual environments to help autistic people rehearse stressful encounters. For instance, Rizzo’s team built a virtual job-interview training program. In a study published last year, they recruited adults with autism or other conditions for a training regimen involving interviewers who ranged from gentle to aggressive. Rizzo says the participants with autism significantly improved in their interviewing skills, as rated by job counselors.

    A similar application lets autistic children practice public speaking in a virtual classroom with an audience of eight avatars. To encourage them to look around the room rather than stare straight ahead, the avatars start to fade away if the speaker fails to make eye contact with them. “So it became a game of keeping the avatars on the screen by shifting attention,” says Peter Mundy, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, who developed the program. “We found that the kids with autism really responded to that.”

    VR can also make autistic children more comfortable in strange environments. In an unpublished July 2018 case study, a team led by Nigel Newbutt at the University of the West of England in Bristol gave 11 autistic children, aged 10 to 14 years, a VR tour of a local science museum a few days before their actual visit. “Students reported feeling less anxious, less stressed, more prepared for that space,” he says. “In fact, the teachers also found that when the pupils got there, they knew where they wanted to go; they had a greater sense of purpose and direction.”

    Back in the lab, virtual environments have also offered researchers a welcome new experimental technique. Nathan Caruana, a cognitive neuroscientist who uses VR to study social cognition in autism, prefers it to standard screen-based scenarios. “All of those paradigms have largely relied on non-interactive tasks, where people are responding to a face with averted gaze on a screen,” says Caruana, associate investigator at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “But it doesn’t really reflect the dynamics and complexity of a social interaction.”

    VR also facilitates imaging experiments that would otherwise be impossible—such as enabling someone lying in a scanner to banter with virtual humans. “In order to measure this in an imaging platform, you basically have to use virtual reality,” Mundy says.

    For all its apparent advantages, however, VR has yet to be rigorously tested as a therapeutic or research tool for autism. Several meta-analyses this year turned up comparatively few studies, and most had only a handful of participants and no control group. Newbutt and a colleague, for instance, found a total of six studies since 1990 that have tested head-mounted VR displays in students with autism. “There isn’t that much evidence to support the use of this yet,” Newbutt says.

    One reason is cost, not just of the equipment but of the programmers and animators needed to create the content. Mundy laments that he hasn’t been able to implement some of his ideas for lack of people with the relevant expertise. “One of the reasons I couldn’t go further with it was that I couldn’t pay the coder as much as a high-tech company [could],” he says. Consequently, VR scenarios remain highly simplified, and the technology’s much-touted advantage—realism—remains out of reach.

    Newbutt also says that researchers have seldom asked autistic people what they want from the technology. “There’s still a bit of a tendency to research about autism and autistic groups as opposed to research with them,” he says. This is precisely what the new first-person experiences seek to rectify.

    Righting the balance

    Many people with autism are drawn to VR out of a feeling of invisibility.

    “Until a predominantly neurotypical society/culture puts in the equivalent amount of effort and time to understand us and listen to us as we put into understanding and listening to it, we will continue to be disabled,” says Sonja Zelić, an autistic artist based in London who contributed to Beholder. Imperfect though it is, VR can help to right that balance.

    Some people with autism say they prefer VR to a conventional talking-head interview because it doesn’t require them to sit in front of a camera; they can work behind the scenes. “I find it an uncomfortably voyeuristic situation to have to explain my autistic experiences publicly,” Kruse says.

    Even the best-intentioned typical people cannot fully understand what life is like for autistic individuals when it’s described only in words, says Benjamin Lok, a VR researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Lok has not worked on such projects but has a 9-year-old son, Brandon, who is on the spectrum. “Trying to explain that world that Brandon sees, not only to us, but to family members—that is a challenge,” Lok says. “I would think, if I could get my mom and dad to go through [a VR] experience, how would they interact with Brandon differently?”

    London has emerged as a center of autism-related VR projects. In 2016, Don’t Panic, a creative agency there, produced an immersive experience for the nonprofit National Autistic Society. The simulation portrays how isolated and overwhelmed an autistic child might feel at a shopping mall. In another simulation, the BBC’s corporate neurodiversity initiative puts its protagonist in an office meeting with a breathtakingly condescending coworker. Flashing lights and shimmering carpet patterns connote sensory overload, and a soundtrack that incorporates a throbbing heartbeat and rushed breathing signals a rising panic. Sean Gilroy, who ran the BBC project with an autistic colleague, says family members of people with autism or other conditions have reacted favorably. “They’ll spot things in the film that their sons or daughters or sisters or brothers have spoken about,” he says. “It brings it to life; it makes it real. It can get quite emotional for people.”

    The Party, produced by The Guardian newspaper, is notable for its inner dialogue as its teenage protagonist copes with her unsympathetic relatives and family friends. The project was the brainchild of novelist Lucy Hawking, daughter of the late physicist Stephen Hawking; her son, William, is autistic. The script writer, Sumita Majumdar, is also autistic, and the project involved input from autism researchers. “We tried to be true to the science, but it was really important that we built a lot of the visual experience of the film on what people had said,” says Owen Parsons, a graduate student in Simon Baron-Cohen’s lab at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “Of course, if the science is correct, then those two things should not disagree with each other,” Parsons says.

    Real-time reflections

    The augmented-reality system created by Nagai’s team also draws heavily on input from people with autism. Instead of dropping you into a department store or house party, it takes a video feed of wherever you happen to be and transforms it in real time to what a person with autism might experience. Whatever claim it has for representing autistic perception rests on a simple principle: People with the condition report that their sensory experience changes with context. “Sometimes I’m in a good condition, and sometimes I’m in a very bad condition,” says Satsuki Ayaya, an autistic doctoral student at the University of Tokyo who worked with Nagai on the simulator. Ayaya says these fluctuations make her conscious of what her condition involves and how it might differ from the neurotypical experience. The augmented-reality system seeks to replicate these fluctuations in autistic perception. “There are variations of symptoms in each individual,” says Shin-ichiro Kumagaya, associate professor of medicine at the University of Tokyo and another of Nagai’s collaborators. “It is the foundation to verify the validity of this system.”

    In 2014, Nagai showed 22 autistic people videos of a train station, a supermarket and two dozen other everyday vignettes. In each of these settings, the participants rated which of 12 visual effects they experienced and to what degree. The team edited that list down to six particularly common effects: overexposure, blur, enhanced edges, heightened contrast, color desaturation and visual snow. Nagai correlated the participants’ reports with the features of each scene, such as brightness, movement and sound level. In the end, she settled on the last three of these visual effects as being the most reproducible for her simulation.

    Nagai’s simulator is an unwieldy contraption: a standard gaming headset kitted out with a webcam. Cables run to a laptop that a graduate student carries in a sling like a newborn. When I strap on the simulator on a May day in Osaka, I have a normal, if slightly lagging, view of the room around me. As the student switches on the simulator, though, Nagai’s face blurs, making her expressions hard to read. Turning away, I quickly find myself captivated by what appears to be an abstract Impressionist painting; it turns out to be a gray cubicle partition. I look at my hand; the creases resemble intricate henna art. The system’s heightened contrast brings out even the smallest textures.

    Led by Nagai, I shuffle down the hall and out into the parking lot. Everything is whited out at first, as if I’ve taken off my sunglasses on a glaringly bright day. Whenever I turn my head or a car drives by, color drains from the image, like applying a noir filter on Instagram. As we re-enter the building, the abrupt darkening unleashes a blizzard of random speckles across the scene like so many polka dots. The lobby’s uneven lighting is exaggerated. Shafts of light alternate with darker regions, giving people ghostly outlines.

    The simulation is purely visual, but Nagai says they have been recruiting volunteers for a study of sound perception. The team is experimenting with audio effects such as white noise; drone notes, such as a constant 1000-hertz background sound; and filters that suppress certain ranges of audio frequencies.

    Since 2015, Nagai and her colleagues have held some two dozen workshops in Osaka and Tokyo for teachers, therapists and parents of autistic children, in which they let people try the simulator, see clips from it in several everyday settings, and then discuss it. The researchers also screen conventional video documentaries about autism. Ayaya was initially dubious about the project but has since come around. “It was better than I expected,” she says. The simulation highlights aspects of her perception, such as the visual snow, that she had taken for granted, she says. “I was surprised that neurotypical people were surprised,” she says.

    Being made aware of these perceptual differences could even help people with autism develop strategies to compensate. “One of the participants in our experiments told me that after she joined our experiment she started wearing sunglasses in her daily life,” Nagai says. “Also, she told me she changed the lights in her room to an LED system so that she can control the brightness.”

    Ayaya stresses that even if the simulator succeeds at representing the autistic sensory experience, it cannot capture higher-level aspects of perception. “You may see how we see, but what you feel is not always the same as what we feel,” she says.

    A forthcoming paper on the simulator reinforces this point. Kuriko Kagitani-Shimono, a pediatric neurologist at Osaka University, says she showed video clips from the simulator to 45 autistic people and 46 neurotypical volunteers and used magnetoencephalography to measure their brain responses. The patterns of activity did not match. “The actual sensory responses of autistic people are different from those of typically developed people wearing the simulator in many ways,” she says.

    Nagai has not demonstrated the system outside these workshops, and a YouTube video does not do it justice, so other researchers were unable to comment. They say they like the principle it is based on, however. Parsons says the real-time feed might provide greater immediacy than a scripted film. “You’re getting that experience one step closer,” he says. Newbutt praises Nagai’s partnership with people on the spectrum: “Autistic people themselves can reproduce visual experiences, and this is very novel and something that has not been done before,” he says.

    Intersubjective experiences

    Researchers are looking toward broader applications of VR to help autistic individuals. In September, Nagai held a workshop for architects and interior designers. Open-plan offices and fashionably noisy restaurants seem almost calculated to frustrate people with autism, and VR systems could be used to sensitize designers. “There could also be new directions for research, for example, in relation to how spaces—such as schools, doctors’ surgeries—could be designed to better reflect the needs of a neurodiverse population,” says Sarah Parsons, an autism researcher at the University of Southampton in the U.K. who consulted on “Beholder.”

    Therapists, too, could use a simulator of autistic perception in their training. Lok has helped to develop simulators for doctors and nurses to practice their bedside manner, albeit not for autism. He founded a company, Shadow Health, to sell these virtual patients. “They can look any way; they can sound any way; they can behave any way that the educator wants them to; and you can get immediate feedback on how you did,” he says.

    Clark says the technology could also be adapted to provide a portable meditative space for people with autism. “This could act as a place of sanctuary,” he says. In one unpublished study, Newbutt asked 31 autistic and 13 typical students, aged 6 to 16 years, at four English schools to rank the needs they thought VR could fill. The top choice in both groups of students was for VR as a means to relax when they feel overwhelmed. “Their preference, across all of those questions, is that [VR] makes them feel relaxed and calm,” Newbutt says.

    Mundy also envisions a multiplayer or ‘yoked’ experimental paradigm in which two participants work together. One would be a passenger in the other’s experience, so as to see (and learn from) how the other reacts. “The world is no longer reacting to your gaze and head turns and things of that nature; it’s reacting to somebody else’s,” Mundy says. “You’re seeing the world and interacting with the world in a passive way.” Autistic and typical people alike could benefit from inhabiting someone else’s point of view, he says. “Virtual reality has the potential to establish real-time intersubjective experience.”

    As with other uses of VR in autism research and therapy, however, there has been a lack of systematic evaluation. Participants in Nagai’s workshops fill out exit questionnaires, but Kumagaya says the team has only just begun to follow up to see whether the experience has any lasting effect on attitudes toward people with autism. For now, the only evidence that VR succeeds at eliciting empathy is anecdotal.

    Many worry that by portraying only one narrow dimension of autism, VR applications may actually backfire. Zelić is blunt about its limitations: “I feel that it is almost impossible to convey the depth of autistic intensity and emotion visually because we don’t express this in recognized neurotypical ways, and so these types of reconstructions can fall into a kind of parody.” A cautionary tale comes from schizophrenia research. Over the past two decades, numerous researchers have developed immersive experiences of psychosis that depict visual and auditory hallucinations, including malign voices. These simulations can be disturbing to watch. In 2011, a meta-analysis of nine such projects found that they made the participants more empathic to people with schizophrenia but also less willing to interact with them.

    The Beholder project seeks to present more general impressions that give a fuller sense of the autistic experience. “I didn’t really want to be drawn into another stereotypical ‘how difficult life would be if you had this condition’ [situation],” Clark says. “I think there’s a place for that, for sure, but I meant to do something different.”

    Clark, known for his eclectic multimedia installations and stage sets, says the project started with an awkward pause in conversation with Birmingham Open Media’s founder, Karen Newman. “We were just talking about family life and quickly realized that both Matt’s son and my brother are autistic,” she says.

    The two artists decided to explore VR as a natural way to communicate alternative modes of perception. Clark began observing his son more purposefully, watching for what captivated the boy. “He would open the curtains a little bit and just study the dust motes, as if it was like a universe of stars that were floating around,” Clark recalls. The pair also recruited Zelić and Kruse. Kruse described, among other things, how when something moves through the air, she sees it as though it were drawing out a path through space, giving each moment an extended duration. (Others have also suggested that altered time perception is a distinguishing feature of autism.)

    The team opted to focus on what Clark’s son and Zelić find beautiful and translated these thoughts into a series of nature scenes, including the one with the butterfly. “No one ever thinks to talk about autism from this [positive] perspective,” Kruse says. “The narrative is always focused on difficulties, or the strange, maybe dramatic differences of the autistic mind.” And the vignettes they developed are compelling as art, regardless of what they may or may not say about autism. In one preview scene of Beholder, rain falls onto the floor, sending out languid ripples; in another, leaves fall gently to the ground. In yet another, I was shrunk to mouse size, lost but in awe of giant blades of grass swaying overhead.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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  • richardmitnick 12:24 pm on September 27, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: April Boin Choi, ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, ,   

    From Harvard University: Women in STEM – “Silent Infant Gestures May Help Detect Autism” April Boin Choi 

    Harvard University
    From Harvard University

    September 25, 2018
    Andrew Bauld

    With her research, Ph.D. candidate April Boin Choi looks to identify ways to increase early detection of autism in infants.

    Autism affects tens of millions of individuals around the world, but the ability to detect the disorder in young children remains nearly impossible. That may change, thanks in part to the research of Ph.D. candidate April Boin Choi, who has spent her early career studying the disorder and believes that doctors might one day be able to diagnose autism starting in infancy.

    Choi, Ed.M.’13, began researching autism first as an undergraduate studying neuroscience. She was frustrated by the lack of ability to apply her research directly to individuals with autism, and her desire to bridge science, education, and psychology led her to the Mind, Brain, and Education master’s program.

    Now, in the fifth year of the Ph.D. Program, Choi is working to develop better ways of identifying the development of autism in young children, particularly in children who have an older sibling with autism and who are themselves at higher risk of developing the disorder.

    “Autism affects about 1 percent of the general population. For at-risk children, that number jumps to 20 percent,” says Choi, who believes the average age for detection of autism in children — around age 4 — is too late. “It means that those children may not have the access to resources and support that are especially critical during the earliest years of life,” she explains.

    As a possible pathway to earlier diagnosis, Choi is examining forms of communication, specifically hand gestures. Although researchers have long studied gesturing in preverbal children, less is known about gesturing in high-risk populations. Working in the Boston Children’s Hospital Lab of Cognitive Neuroscience, directed by Professor Charles Nelson, Choi has been able to study a cohort of infants at high risk for developing autism.

    “We found that high-risk infants produce fewer gestures, and that infants with fewer gestures at age 1 were later found to have more language difficulties by age 2 and were more likely to receive autism diagnoses,” says Choi.

    Even in the hands of a skilled clinician, says Nelson, reliably diagnosing autism in children under two years of age is next to impossible. “April has convincingly shown that before the infant’s first birthday they are already showing early motor signs of the disorder,” he says. “If April’s work can be replicated with a larger sample size and perhaps in low-risk infants as well, it may well pave the way for clinicians to identify infants who will develop autism before their first birthday.”

    Nelson isn’t the only one who believes in Choi’s work. In April, she received one of three fellowships through the Novak Djokovic Foundation and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. The 2018–2019 grant, which begins this fall, will support her “ground-breaking research,” according to the foundation.

    “This fellowship is unique,” says Choi, “because it brings together students from different disciplines for yearlong skill-building workshops and a chance to receive feedback on research from faculty from across the university.”

    Through the fellowship, Choi is excited to build interdisciplinary thinking skills and translate her science-based research to a wide range of stakeholders, especially for children and families back home in Korea, where she plans to return after her dissertation.

    Despite the fact that nearly 1 in 38 children in Korea is diagnosed with autism, one of the highest rates in the world, there is still a massive stigma attached to the disorder there, resulting in under-diagnosing and fewer support resources for families. Children also report high levels of social exclusion and bullying. There is also a personal motivation for Choi, as she has a close family member with autism in Korea.

    “Having a family member [with autism] instilled in me the commitment to work with autistic students and the core belief that all students can reach their full potential through quality education,” she says.

    Choi says she hopes her research can continue to bridge the gap between autism research and the negative cultural stigma that still exists around the disorder.

    “I want to work in the research world and the outreach world, to hopefully positively impact students and families with autism in Korea and around the world,” Choi says.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Harvard University campus
    Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was named after the College’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown, who upon his death in 1638 left his library and half his estate to the institution. A statue of John Harvard stands today in front of University Hall in Harvard Yard, and is perhaps the University’s best known landmark.

    Harvard University has 12 degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The University has grown from nine students with a single master to an enrollment of more than 20,000 degree candidates including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. There are more than 360,000 living alumni in the U.S. and over 190 other countries.

  • richardmitnick 10:39 am on September 26, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, ,   

    From Rutgers University: “New State Autism Center Opens at Rutgers” 

    Rutgers smaller
    Our Great Seal.

    From Rutgers University

    September 25, 2018
    Patti Verbanas

    The New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence is positioned to become a national model for programs that integrate autism research, clinical care and education.

    A new statewide center based at Rutgers University–New Brunswick has been established to improve research, treatment and services for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

    The New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence, which is funded by the Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism, the New Jersey Department of Health, will be led by Elizabeth Torres, an associate professor in psychology at Rutgers–New Brunswick; James Millonig, an associate professor in neuroscience and cell biology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; and Jill Harris, director of Research Development and Coordinator of Autism Services at Children’s Specialized Hospital.

    The new center is positioned to become a national model for programs that integrate autism research, clinical care and education, said Torres. While autism affects one in 59 children in United States, one in 34 children has the disorder in New Jersey.

    “We are one of the only states in the nation that for nearly 20 years has maintained the Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism. Indeed, families of people with autism come to New Jersey from across the globe due to the exceptional services offered here,” Torres said. “But like the rest of the nation, we lack a comprehensive network that allows researchers, clinicians and families to connect. We also face barriers to research and don’t have a scientifically grounded understanding of how well certain treatments work.”

    A consumer advisory board composed of parents and advocates will inform the center on the unmet needs of the autistic population and help shape the center’s vision for the future. “We reached out to people with ASD, families and service providers to better understand where the ASD research and service gaps are,” says Harris. “Their input helps ensure that the goals and planned activities of the NJACE meets these needs including creating training for current and next generation health care providers to address needs of people with ASD across the lifespan.”

    Torres notes the lack of adequate insurance coverage for basic needs for people with this condition, and families cannot afford treatment that can help their children. “Since there are no physical outcome measures that provide a solid account of how well certain treatments work, parents get discouraged,” she said. “Then, children age beyond school years and services end.”

    Over the coming year, the center will create a collaborative, interdisciplinary network of health care providers, researchers, families, biopharmaceutical companies, universities, corporations, small businesses and other autism centers. The goal is to establish best practices, share information on successes and challenges to research, educate researchers and clinicians and locate treatment and employment for people of all ages with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). “We will stimulate innovative cutting-edge research, connect researchers to experts in their respective fields, assist with reporting and help communicate important findings to the autism community,” said Millonig.

    “The members of the New Jersey Autism Council are committed to the next steps in order to advance and disseminate the understanding, treatment, and management of ASD,” said Caroline Eggerding, the Council’s chair. “We look forward to working with the New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence to carry out the vision of coordinated innovative transformation research, treatment and professional education.”

    Of prime research interest: How effective are specific treatments for individuals with autism at different stages of life? Retroactive research on the trajectory of people diagnosed with autism as far back as 15 years ago can provide crucial insights into this lifelong condition and allow clinicians to understand what interventions succeeded or failed in promoting autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency during the transition from childhood to young adulthood, Torres said. The center will create a de-identified and centralized scientific data repository to help connect research outcomes from grantees from diverse layers of the knowledge network, spanning from patient’s contributed data, to digital biomarkers and environmental exposures, the microbiome and genetics.

    “Autism is not just a childhood disorder,” said Torres. “By three years of age, we have more certainty that something deviates from typical neurodevelopment; but the evolution toward this condition starts earlier. As such, we must intervene early, but physical outcome measures required for objective evaluations do not currently exist and as such there is no data on treatments’ effectiveness in any of the existing data repositories we have access to. We are merely guessing at what treatments will work or when such treatments will be most effective. The support of the center will aid researchers in obtaining age-dependent physical outcome measurements on personalized treatments that are scientifically grounded. This could be particularly useful to guide early intervention programs, even before autism is detected and officially diagnosed.”

    The center also seeks to change the public perception of ASD, shifting it from an exclusive psychological- or psychiatric-centered description of symptoms to one that more holistically ascertains the physiological underpinnings of this condition. The aim is to improve the person’s autonomy and physical independence to promote healthy social living.

    “A staggering number of adults with autism live without any hope to be embraced by our society,” Torres said. “The descriptions of autism as a mental illness, a social deficit, a lack of empathy or a mind that cannot theorize about others’ behaviors or actions obscures a person’s inherent abilities. We need to change the model to help children with autism become adults who are an integral part of our workforce.”

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is a leading national research university and the state’s preeminent, comprehensive public institution of higher education. Rutgers is dedicated to teaching that meets the highest standards of excellence; to conducting research that breaks new ground; and to providing services, solutions, and clinical care that help individuals and the local, national, and global communities where they live.

    Founded in 1766, Rutgers teaches across the full educational spectrum: preschool to precollege; undergraduate to graduate; postdoctoral fellowships to residencies; and continuing education for professional and personal advancement.

    As a ’67 graduate of University college, second in my class, I am proud to be a member of

    Alpha Sigma Lamda, National Honor Society of non-tradional students.

  • richardmitnick 9:20 am on August 8, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Google Glass helps kids with autism read facial expressions", , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, Google Glass, ,   

    From Stanford University : “Google Glass helps kids with autism read facial expressions” 

    Stanford University Name
    From Stanford University


    Erin Digitale

    Wearing a device that identifies other people’s facial expressions can help children with autism develop better social skills, a Stanford pilot study has demonstrated.

    Children with autism were able to improve their social skills by using a smartphone app paired with Google Glass to help them understand the emotions conveyed in people’s facial expressions, according to a pilot study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

    Prior to participating in the study, Alex, 9, found it overwhelming to look people in the eye.
    Alex took part in a pilot study in which a smartphone app paired with Google Glass was shown to help children with autism understand emotions conveyed in facial expressions.
    Steve Fisch

    Gentle encouragement from his mother, Donji Cullenbine, hadn’t helped. “I would smile and say things like, ‘You looked at me three times today!’ But it didn’t really move the bar,” she said. Using Google Glass transformed how Alex felt about looking at faces, Cullenbine said. “It was a game environment in which he wanted to win — he wanted to guess right.”

    The therapy, described in findings published online Aug. 2 in npj Digital Medicine, uses a Stanford-designed app that provides real-time cues about other people’s facial expressions to a child wearing Google Glass. The device, which was linked with a smartphone through a local wireless network, consists of a glasses-like frame equipped with a camera to record the wearer’s field of view, as well as a small screen and a speaker to give the wearer visual and audio information. As the child interacts with others, the app identifies and names their emotions through the Google Glass speaker or screen. After one to three months of regular use, parents reported that children with autism made more eye contact and related better to others.

    The treatment could help fill a major gap in autism care: Right now, because of a shortage of trained therapists, children may wait as long as 18 months after an autism diagnosis to begin receiving treatment.

    ‘Really important unmet need’

    “We have too few autism practitioners,” said the study’s senior author, Dennis Wall, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics and of biomedical data science. Early autism therapy has been shown to be particularly effective, but many children aren’t treated quickly enough to get the maximum benefit, he said. “The only way to break through the problem is to create reliable, home-based treatment systems. It’s a really important unmet need.”

    Autism is a developmental disorder that affects 1 in 59 children in the United States, with a higher prevalence in boys. It is characterized by social and communication deficits and repetitive behaviors.

    The researchers named the new therapy “Superpower Glass” to help make it appealing to children. The therapy is based on applied behavior analysis, a well-studied autism treatment in which a clinician teaches emotion recognition using structured exercises such as flash cards depicting faces with different emotions. Although traditional applied behavior analysis helps children with autism, it has limitations: It must be delivered one-on-one by trained therapists, flash cards can’t always capture the full range of human emotion and children may struggle to transfer what they learn to their daily lives.

    Eight core facial expressions

    Wall’s team decided to try using applied behavior analysis principles in a way that would bring parents and everyday situations into the treatment process. They built a smartphone app that uses machine learning to recognize eight core facial expressions: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, fear, neutral and contempt. The app was trained with hundreds of thousands of photos of faces showing the eight expressions, and also had a mechanism to allow people involved in the study to calibrate it to their own “neutral” faces if necessary.

    Clinical research coordinator Jessey Schwartz (left) watches as Alex and his mother, Donji Cullenbine (right), use the smartphone app connected to the Google Glass.
    Steve Fisch

    Typically developing children learn to recognize emotions by engaging with people around them. For children with autism, it’s different. “They don’t pick those things up without focused treatment,” Wall said.

    In the study, 14 families tested the Superpower Glass setup at home for an average of 10 weeks each. Each family had a child between the ages of 3 and 17 with a clinically confirmed autism diagnosis.

    The families used the therapy for at least three 20-minute sessions per week. At the start and end of the study, parents completed questionnaires to provide detailed information about their child’s social skills. In interviews, parents and children also gave feedback about how the program worked for their families.

    The researchers designed three ways to use the face-recognizing program: In “free play,” children wear Google Glass while interacting or playing with their families, and the software provides the wearer with a visual or auditory cue each time it recognizes an emotion on the face of someone in the field of view. There are also two game modes. In “guess my e­­­­­­motion,” a parent acts out a facial expression corresponding to one of the eight core emotions, and the child tries to identify it. The game helps families and researchers track children’s improvement at identifying emotions. In “capture the smile,” children give another person clues about the emotion they want to elicit, until the other person acts it out, which helps the researchers gauge the children’s understanding of different emotions.

    Good reviews from families

    Families told the researchers that the system was engaging, useful and fun. Kids were willing to wear the Google Glass, and the devices withstood the wear and tear of being used by children.

    Twelve of the 14 families, including Alex’s, said their children made more eye contact after receiving the treatment. A few weeks into the trial, Alex began to realize that people’s faces hold clues to their feelings. “He told me, ‘Mommy, I can read minds!’” Cullenbine said. “My heart sang. I’d like other parents to have the same experience.”

    Families whose children had more severe autism were more likely to choose the game modes rather than free play, the researchers reported.

    The children’s mean score on the SRS-2, a questionnaire completed by parents to evaluate children’s social skills, decreased by 7.38 points during the study, indicating less severe symptoms of autism. None of the participants’ SRS-2 scores increased during the study, meaning nobody’s autism symptoms worsened. Six of the 14 participants had large enough declines in their scores to move down one step in the severity of their autism classification: four from “severe” to “moderate,” one from “moderate” to “mild” and one from “mild” to “normal.”

    The results should be interpreted with caution since the study did not have a control arm, Wall said. However, the findings are promising, he added.

    Parents’ comments in interviews helped illustrate the improvements, he said. “Parents said things like ‘A switch has been flipped; my child is looking at me.’ Or ‘Suddenly the teacher is telling me that my child is engaging in the classroom.’ It was really heartwarming and super-encouraging for us to hear,” Wall said.

    His team is currently completing a larger, randomized trial of the therapy. In addition, they also plan to test the therapy in children who have just been diagnosed with autism and are on a waiting list for treatment. Stanford University has filed a patent application for the technology.

    Information about the project is available online.

    The study’s other Stanford authors are clinical research coordinators Jena Daniels and Jessey Schwartz; graduate students Catalin Voss and Peter Washington; postdoctoral scholar Nick Haber, PhD; software engineer Azar Fazel; software developer Aaron Kline; Carl Feinstein, MD, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; and Terry Winograd, PhD, professor emeritus of computer science.

    Wall, Feinstein and Winograd are members of Stanford Bio-X and the Stanford Child Health Research Institute. Wall is also a member of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

    The research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health (grants 1R21HD091500 and 1R01EB025025), Stanford’s Clinical and Translational Science Award (NIH grant UL1TR001085), the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, Stanford’s Walter V. and Idun Berry Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, the Stanford Child Health Research Institute, the Dekeyser and Friends Foundation and the Mosbacher Family Fund for Autism Research, as well as an individual gift from Peter Sullivan. The researchers received an in-kind gift from Google of 35 Google Glass devices as well as technical assistance from the company, and an in-kind grant of Amazon Web Services Founder Support.

    Stanford’s Department of Pediatrics also supported the work.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Stanford University campus. No image credit

    Leland and Jane Stanford founded the University to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.” Stanford opened its doors in 1891, and more than a century later, it remains dedicated to finding solutions to the great challenges of the day and to preparing our students for leadership in today’s complex world. Stanford, is an American private research university located in Stanford, California on an 8,180-acre (3,310 ha) campus near Palo Alto. Since 1952, more than 54 Stanford faculty, staff, and alumni have won the Nobel Prize, including 19 current faculty members

    Stanford University Seal

  • richardmitnick 3:57 pm on June 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, , Social robots: supporting children on the autism spectrum   

    From CSIROscope: “Social robots: supporting children on the autism spectrum” 

    CSIRO bloc

    From CSIROscope

    5 June 2018
    Sian Stringer

    Kaspar and Paro, two of the social robots we’re trialling to support children with autism.

    For some children on the autism spectrum, developing academic skills, as well as communication and social interaction skills can be a significant challenge.

    Children with autism may sometimes be more engaged or at ease when interacting with technology, so digital tech is often used to support their education. While it’s generally considered safe and effective, there’s still a challenge to make sure children develop skills that are useable in the real world – not just in the virtual world.

    This is where a little robot called Kaspar comes in.

    Meet Kaspar, the friendly robot

    Kaspar is a programmable, childlike robot developed by the University of Hertsfordshire in England for children with autism, and researchers from our Australian e-Health Research Centre have been trialling him in partnership with the University of New South Wales.

    Our project lead, Dr David Silvera, says that while Kaspar might look a little unnerving to an adult, he’s actually appealing to children – and his limited facial expression helps them feel more comfortable with him.

    “This is important, as we’re looking at whether he can help students develop their social and communication skills,” David says.

    David and his team have written software modules for Kaspar. A therapist then sets the little robot up to act out certain behaviours or social situations, and children practice those situations with the robot – with the goal of helping them learn how to deal with similar social situations in real life.

    Kaspar is one of four social robots David and his team have been trialling as tools in education and therapy, partnering with UNSW, Murray Bridge High School in SA, and Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT). The other robots include Robotis, Nao, and Paro – Paro is a furry baby seal lookalike that responds to touch and that children can find relaxing.

    What’s next for Kaspar and friends?

    We’re still evaluating our results, but so far results suggest social robots like Kaspar could be effective tools in supporting education and therapy for children on the spectrum.

    David says children who have interacted with the social robots for a while have started to see improvements in verbal communication, participation, and social interaction – and most importantly, we’re starting to see some of this transfer to children’s interactions with other people.

    We’ll keep collecting evidence and modifying the programs, so the robots are as beneficial as possible and easy for teachers and therapists to intergrate as part of their everyday classes and sessions, in the hope of making this technology as accessible as possible for schools around Australia someday.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    SKA/ASKAP radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Mid West region of Western Australia

    So what can we expect these new radio projects to discover? We have no idea, but history tells us that they are almost certain to deliver some major surprises.

    Making these new discoveries may not be so simple. Gone are the days when astronomers could just notice something odd as they browse their tables and graphs.

    Nowadays, astronomers are more likely to be distilling their answers from carefully-posed queries to databases containing petabytes of data. Human brains are just not up to the job of making unexpected discoveries in these circumstances, and instead we will need to develop “learning machines” to help us discover the unexpected.

    With the right tools and careful insight, who knows what we might find.

    CSIRO campus

    CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

  • richardmitnick 11:58 am on May 8, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, Drug May Reverse Imbalance Linked to Autism Symptoms, ,   

    From Northwestern University: “Drug May Reverse Imbalance Linked to Autism Symptoms” 

    Northwestern U bloc
    From Northwestern University

    May 7, 2018
    Will Doss

    Anis Contractor, PhD, professor of Physiology and senior author of a study published in Molecular Psychiatry.

    An FDA-approved drug can reverse an ionic imbalance in neurons that leads to hyper-excitability in mice modeling an autism-related genetic disorder, according to a Northwestern Medicine study published in Molecular Psychiatry.

    These findings suggest that the sensory hypersensitivity experienced by patients with Fragile X syndrome, a syndromic autism, may be caused by elevated intracellular chloride in neurons during early development, according to Anis Contractor, PhD, professor of Physiology and senior author of the study.

    “Some children with Fragile X syndrome or autism have changes in sensory processing, similar to the mouse model,” Contractor said. “The mouse models give us a window into the human disorder. Although mouse brain development is not a completely faithful model of humans, there certainly are parallels.”

    While most genetic mutations that cause autism are very rare — and most cases of autism spectrum disorder are not linked to a genetic cause — children with Fragile X syndrome have a well-defined mutation in a gene on the X chromosome, so Fragile X syndrome is used as a laboratory model for certain aspects of autism, including sensory hypersensitivity.

    “A lot of patients don’t like loud sounds or don’t like to be touched,” Contractor said. “When I talk to parents of children with Fragile X, some tell me these sensory issues lead to many other problems, because the kids are withdrawn or socially isolated.”

    Prior studies in Contractor’s lab established the role of intracellular chloride in certain symptoms of Fragile X syndrome: While it is important for neurotransmitter signaling, high chloride concentration in neural cells can also cause abnormal excitation, shifting the timing of important developmental critical periods.

    These critical periods are phases of early brain development where essential neural circuitry is formed; shifting them earlier or later affects how the brain is wired, as can be seen in the sensory cortex of mouse models. In normal mice, activity in a single whisker activates a single cluster of cells, relaying information about the force and direction in which the whisker was moved.

    However, in mice with Fragile X syndrome, activity from a single whisker activates multiple clusters of cells, creating hyper-excitability.

    “The activity bleeds to other clusters of cells, activating more cells than it normally would,” he said.

    To investigate if this hyper-excitability could be reversed, Contractor and his colleagues treated mice for two weeks after birth with bumetanide, a drug originally used for hypertension.

    “It’s actually not used very much anymore, because there are better drugs on the market now. But in addition to its effect on blood pressure it can affect neuronal chloride transporters and the influx of chloride into the cell,” Contractor said.

    In mice with the Fragile X mutation, Contractor found it returned the concentration of intracellular chloride back to normal in neurons, shifting the critical periods back to their correct timing and leading to more typical synapse development.

    “We found that if we gave this drug early in development, it not only corrected the development of synapses during the early critical period, it also corrected the sensory problems we saw in adult mice,” Contractor said. “It is possible that correcting chloride or correcting neurotransmitter signaling in humans could also have the same effect.”

    In fact, a high concentration of intracellular chloride could be associated with a variety of developmental disorders, not just Fragile X syndrome and autism, according to Contractor.

    “We think it actually might be a more general mechanism, it’s been shown to play a role in Down syndrome and childhood epilepsies as well,” Contractor said. “People are interested in this chloride mechanism in a whole host of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

    Contractor is also a professor in the Department of Neurobiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Qionger He, PhD, a former postdoctoral fellow in Contractor’s laboratory, was first author of the study. Feinberg co-authors include Jeffrey Savas, PhD, assistant professor in the Ken & Ruth Davee Department of Neurology and of Medicine and Pharmacology, Sam Smukowski, staff member in the Savas Laboratory and Jian Xu, PhD, research assistant professor of Physiology.

    The authors also collaborated with Carlos Portera-Cailliau, MD, PhD, associate professor of Neurology at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles, and other members of his research group.

    See the full article here .

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    Northwestern South Campus
    South Campus

    On May 31, 1850, nine men gathered to begin planning a university that would serve the Northwest Territory.

    Given that they had little money, no land and limited higher education experience, their vision was ambitious. But through a combination of creative financing, shrewd politicking, religious inspiration and an abundance of hard work, the founders of Northwestern University were able to make that dream a reality.

    In 1853, the founders purchased a 379-acre tract of land on the shore of Lake Michigan 12 miles north of Chicago. They established a campus and developed the land near it, naming the surrounding town Evanston in honor of one of the University’s founders, John Evans. After completing its first building in 1855, Northwestern began classes that fall with two faculty members and 10 students.
    Twenty-one presidents have presided over Northwestern in the years since. The University has grown to include 12 schools and colleges, with additional campuses in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.

    Northwestern is recognized nationally and internationally for its educational programs.

  • richardmitnick 9:36 am on May 3, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, ,   

    From JHU HUB: “U.S. autism rate rises to highest level on record, according to CDC report” 

    Johns Hopkins

    Michelle Landrum

    Image credit: Pixabay

    The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder at 11 surveillance sites was one in 59 among 8-year-olds in 2014, according to a new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, a 15 percent increase from the most recent report two years ago and the highest prevalence since the CDC began tracking ASD in 2000.

    Consistent with previous reports, boys were four times more likely to be identified with ASD than girls. The rate is one in 38 among boys (or 2.7 percent) and one in 152 among girls (or 0.7 percent). Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health contributed to the report.

    ASD is a developmental disorder characterized by social and communication impairments, combined with limited interests and repetitive behaviors. Early diagnosis and intervention are key to improving learning and skills. Rates have been rising since the 1960s, but researchers do not know how much of this rise is due to an increase in actual cases. There are other factors that may be contributing, such as increased awareness, screening, diagnostic services, treatment and intervention services, better documentation of ASD behaviors, and changes in diagnostic criteria.

    For this new report, the CDC collected data at 11 regional monitoring sites that are part of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network in the following states: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. (A report with individual state findings is available online [CDC]).The Maryland monitoring site is based at the Bloomberg School in Baltimore.

    This is the sixth report by the ADDM Network, which has used the same surveillance methods for more than a decade. Estimated prevalence rates of ASD in the U.S. reported by previous data were:

    One in 68 children in the 2016 report that looked at 2012 data
    One in 68 children in the 2014 report that looked at 2010 data
    One in 88 children in the 2012 report that looked at 2008 data
    One in 110 children in the 2009 report that looked at 2006 data
    One in 150 children in the 2007 report that looked at 2000 and 2002 data

    “The estimated overall prevalence rates reported by ADDM at the monitoring sites have more than doubled since the report was first published in 2007,” says Li-Ching Lee, a psychiatric epidemiologist with the Bloomberg School’s departments of Epidemiology and Mental Health and the principal investigator for Maryland-ADDM. “Although we continue to see disparities among racial and ethnic groups, the gap is closing.”

    Autism spectrum disorder prevalence was reported to be approximately 20 to 30 percent higher among white children as compared with black children in previous ADDM reports. In the current report, the difference has dropped to 7 percent. In addition, approximately 70 percent of children with ASD had borderline, average, or above average intellectual ability, a proportion higher than that found in ADDM data prior to 2012.

    Some trends in the latest CDC report remain similar, such as the greater likelihood of boys being diagnosed with ASD, the age of earliest comprehensive evaluation, and presence of a previous ASD diagnosis or classification. Specifically, non-white children with ASD are being identified and evaluated at a later age than white children. The majority of children identified with ASD by the ADDM Network (80 percent) had a previous ASD diagnosis or a special educational classification.

    In Maryland, the prevalence of ASD was higher than in the network as a whole. An estimated one in 50 children (2 percent) was identified as having ASD—one in 31 among boys and one in 139 among girls. The data were derived from health and special education records of children who were 8 years old and living in Baltimore County in 2014.

    Lee notes, similar to previous reports, the vast majority of children identified with ASD in Maryland had a developmental concern in their records by age 3 (92 percent), but only 56 percent of them received a comprehensive evaluation by that age.

    “This lag may delay the timing for children with ASD to get diagnosed and to start receiving needed services,” says Lee, an associate director of the school’s Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

    The causes of autism are not completely understood; studies show that both environment and genetics may play a role. The CDC recommends that parents track their child’s development and act quickly to get their child screened if they have a concern, and has made available online a free checklist and information resource for parents, physicians, and child care providers.

    See the full article here .

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    About the Hub

    We’ve been doing some thinking — quite a bit, actually — about all the things that go on at Johns Hopkins. Discovering the glue that holds the universe together, for example. Or unraveling the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease. Or studying butterflies in flight to fine-tune the construction of aerial surveillance robots. Heady stuff, and a lot of it.

    In fact, Johns Hopkins does so much, in so many places, that it’s hard to wrap your brain around it all. It’s too big, too disparate, too far-flung.

    We created the Hub to be the news center for all this diverse, decentralized activity, a place where you can see what’s new, what’s important, what Johns Hopkins is up to that’s worth sharing. It’s where smart people (like you) can learn about all the smart stuff going on here.

    At the Hub, you might read about cutting-edge cancer research or deep-trench diving vehicles or bionic arms. About the psychology of hoarders or the delicate work of restoring ancient manuscripts or the mad motor-skills brilliance of a guy who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in under eight seconds.

    There’s no telling what you’ll find here because there’s no way of knowing what Johns Hopkins will do next. But when it happens, this is where you’ll find it.

    Johns Hopkins Campus

    The Johns Hopkins University opened in 1876, with the inauguration of its first president, Daniel Coit Gilman. “What are we aiming at?” Gilman asked in his installation address. “The encouragement of research … and the advancement of individual scholars, who by their excellence will advance the sciences they pursue, and the society where they dwell.”

    The mission laid out by Gilman remains the university’s mission today, summed up in a simple but powerful restatement of Gilman’s own words: “Knowledge for the world.”

    What Gilman created was a research university, dedicated to advancing both students’ knowledge and the state of human knowledge through research and scholarship. Gilman believed that teaching and research are interdependent, that success in one depends on success in the other. A modern university, he believed, must do both well. The realization of Gilman’s philosophy at Johns Hopkins, and at other institutions that later attracted Johns Hopkins-trained scholars, revolutionized higher education in America, leading to the research university system as it exists today.

  • richardmitnick 12:15 pm on April 26, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, , ,   

    From Science Node: “Autism origins in junk DNA” 

    Science Node bloc
    Science Node

    [This post is dedicated to all of my readers whose lives and children have been affected by Austism in all of its many forms.]

    25 Apr, 2018
    Scott LaFee
    Jan Zverina

    Genes inherited from both parents contribute to development of autism in children.

    Courtesy Unsplash/Brittany Simuangco.

    One percent of the world’s population lives with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and the prevalence is increasing by around ten percent each year. Though there is no obvious straight line between autism and any single gene, genetics and inherited traits play an important role in development of the condition.

    In recent years, researchers have firmly established that gene mutations appearing for the first time, called de novo mutations, contribute to approximately one-third of cases of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

    Early symptoms. Children with ASD may avoid eye contact, have delayed speech, and fail to demonstrate interest. Courtesy Unsplash.

    In a new study [Science], an international team led by scientists at University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine have identified a culprit that may explain some of the remaining risk: rare inherited variants in regions of non-coding DNA.

    The newly discovered risk factors differ from known genetic causes of autism in two important ways. First, these variants do not alter the genes directly but instead disrupt the neighboring DNA control elements that turn genes on and off, called cis-regulatory elements or CREs. Second, these variants do not occur as new mutations in children with autism, but instead are inherited from their parents.

    “For ten years we’ve known that the genetic causes of autism consist partly of de novo mutations in the protein sequences of genes,” said Jonathan Sebat, a professor of psychiatry, cellular and molecular medicine and pediatrics at UCSD School of Medicine and chief of the Beyster Center for Genomics of Psychiatric Genomics. “However, gene sequences represent only 2 percent of the genome.”


    Autism facts

    Autism affects 1 in 68 children
    Boys are four times more likely than girls to have autism
    Symptoms usually appear before age 3
    Autism varies greatly; no two people with autism are alike
    There is currently no cure for autism
    Early intervention is key to successful treatment

    To investigate the other 98 percent of the genome in ASD, Sebat and his colleagues analyzed the complete genomes of 9,274 subjects from 2,600 families. One thousand genomes were sequenced in San Diego at Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) and at Illumina Inc.

    DNA sequences were analyzed with the Comet supercomputer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC).

    SDSC Dell Comet supercomputer at San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC)

    These data were then combined with other large studies from the Simons Simplex Collection and the Autism Speaks MSSNG Whole Genome Sequencing Project.

    “Whole genome sequence data processing and analysis are both computationally and resource intensive,” said Madhusudan Gujral, an analyst with SDSC and co-author of the paper.

    Using SDSC’s Comet, processing and identifying specific structural variants from a single genome took about 2½-days.

    “Since Comet has 1,984 compute nodes and several petabytes of scratch space for analysis, tens of genomes can be processed at the same time,” added SDSC scientist Wayne Pfeiffer. “Instead of months, with Comet we were able to complete the data processing in weeks.”

    The researchers then analyzed structural variants, deleted or duplicated segments of DNA that disrupt regulatory elements of genes, dubbed CRE-SVs. From the complete genomes of families, the researchers found that CRE-SVs that are inherited from parents also contributed to ASD.

    HPC for the 99 percent. The Comet supercomputer at SDSC meets the needs of underserved researchers in domains that have not traditionally relied on supercomputers to help solve problems. Courtesy San Diego Supercomputer Center.

    “We also found that CRE-SVs were inherited predominantly from fathers, which was a surprise,” said co-first author William M. Brandler, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in Sebat’s lab at UCSD and bioinformatics scientist at HLI.

    “Previous studies have found evidence that some protein-coding variants are inherited predominantly from mothers, a phenomenon known as a maternal origin effect. The paternal origin effect we see for non-coding variants suggests that the inherited genetic contribution from mothers and fathers may be qualitatively different.”

    Sebat said current research does not explain with certainty what mechanism determines these parent-of-origin effects, but he has proposed a plausible model.

    “There is a wide spectrum of genetic variation in the human population, with coding variants having strong effects and noncoding variants having weaker effects,” he said. “If men and women differ in their capacity to tolerate such variants, this could give rise to the parent-of-origin effects that we see.”

    See the full article here .

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    Science Node is an international weekly online publication that covers distributed computing and the research it enables.

    “We report on all aspects of distributed computing technology, such as grids and clouds. We also regularly feature articles on distributed computing-enabled research in a large variety of disciplines, including physics, biology, sociology, earth sciences, archaeology, medicine, disaster management, crime, and art. (Note that we do not cover stories that are purely about commercial technology.)

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