New autism study documents brain changes over time, how early intervention may help

Published: Jul. 1, 2016 at 4:28 PM EDT
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The Autism Society says there are more than 3.5 million Americans on the autism spectrum right now.

Often older people with autism were diagnosed later in life and did not benefit from early intervention.

The Barrow Neurological Institute and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, or SARRC, in Phoenix are teaming up to look at what happens in autistic people’s brains as they age.

Jason Bunn-Parsons is one of 40 men in a first of its kind study on autism and aging. He’ll go to Barrow Neurological Institute every two years, so researchers can track changes in his brain with an MRI.

“It definitely is interesting to see what role my autism may or may not play in the aging process. Would it accelerate it? Would it actually slow it down?" said Parsons.

Researchers at Barrow and SARRC have launched a longitudinal study, a study over time, to document brain changes in autistic adults.

“There are subtle differences between typically developing individuals and subtle differences across age groups that will turn around and inform what we need to do by way of treatment to help individuals live more independently for longer periods of time," Christopher Smith, PHD, Research director at SARRC said.

Neuropsychologist Leslie Baxter says the MRI’s have already revealed differences in areas of the brain controlling memory, attention span, and the ability to organize and stay on task.

“They’re not having problems that would cause them to be unable to function in their environment, but they may over time, need a little bit more help to stay independent," said Baxter.

Researchers are hoping they’ll be able to eventually help Jason and countless others live life to the fullest as they reach their golden years.

Researchers, Baxter and Smith, say they want to keep the study going indefinitely.

They’re accepting autistic men ages 18 to 25 and 40 to 60 who have the ability to return to Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix every two years.


TOPIC: The Next Frontier for Autism

REPORT: MB #4125

BACKGROUND: Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, refers to a group of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by repetitive patterns of behavior and difficulties with social communication and interaction. The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability in functioning that can occur in people on the autistic spectrum. The symptoms are typically present from early childhood and some children and adults living with ASD are fully able to perform all activities of daily living while others require substantial support to perform basic activities. Asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorders are all considered part of ASD rather than as separate disorders. ASD does not discriminate. It can occur in every racial and ethnic group, and across all socioeconomic levels, but boys are significantly more likely to develop ASD than girls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children have ASD.


CAUSES: It is believed that both genetics and environment likely play a role in ASD and there is concern that rates of autism have been increasing in recent decades without full explanation as to why. A number of genes have been identified as being associated with the disorder and scientists have found differences in the development of several regions of the brain in people with ASD. Some studies suggest that ASD could be a result of disruptions in normal brain growth very early in development and these disruptions may be the result of defects in genes that control brain development and regulate how brain cells communicate with each other. Autism is also more common in children born prematurely.


AUTISM AND AGING: People with on the autism spectrum usually continue to need services and supports as they get older. Researchers at Barrow Neurological Institute and Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, or SARRC, have launched a longitudinal study to document brain changes in autistic adults. While much research has been done on the cause of the condition and treatment for children, there have been few studies to focus on adults with autism. This study is believed to be among the first of its kind regarding the impact of autism on the elderly. The long-term goals of this research includes determining what medications and social services might benefit older

patients with autism, as well as to help decision makers understand the needs of the aging autistic community.