Progress in autism research

Most moms-to-be know there are benefits to consuming folic acid during pregnancy. But moms may not know researchers now believe those benefits include reducing the risks of having a child with autism.

This is just one of many breakthroughs reported at the International Meeting for Autism Research. The three-day conference, held by non-profit, autism-related health care agencies such as Autism Speaks, featured more than 900 presentations about causes, diagnosis, biology and treatment of autism.

“One of the challenges that we face with autism is that it’s not one disease,” says Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks."It’s many disorders.” Consequently, scientists and medical professionals are searching for multiple causes and possible treatments.

Lisa Croen, of Kaiser Permanente managed care organization, reported that exposure to Beta-adrenergic agonists (drugs often used for asthma and to stop pre-term labor) may increase a mother’s risk of giving birth to a child with autism. Because these drugs are so common, more research must be conducted to determine when alternatives should be considered.

Mark Bear, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and scientist, has been studying the genetic disorder Fragile X syndrome, where abnormalities in the X chromosome disrupt functions at synapses in the brain. About 30 percent of people with Fragile X develop autism. Bear and other scientists have identified drugs that correct the problem and are starting clinical trials with humans.

Psychologist Deborah Fein presented proof of the benefits of early intervention on autism. Her study suggests at least 10 percent of children with autism can recover when they receive therapy early."Clinically people have observed this, but no one has ever documented it before,” Dawson says. Those who recover may develop ADHD or anxiety, but those are usually successfully treated with medication.

Autism Speaks, Cure Autism Now and the National Alliance for Autism Research have merged to become the nation’s largest autism organization to find a cure."In general, I think we’re moving in the direction where the more we understand about our DNA and biology, we can tailor the treatment to be effective,” Dawson says.

To read more about the breakthroughs presented at the conference, visit

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