Autism Research and Treatment
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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Investigating Predictive Adaptive Behavior Skill Deficits in Young Children

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Autism Research and Treatment publishes original research articles, review articles, and clinical studies related to all aspects of autism.

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Research Article

Oxidative Stress, Folate Receptor Autoimmunity, and CSF Findings in Severe Infantile Autism

Background. Biomarkers such as oxidative stress, folate receptor alpha (FRα) autoimmunity, and abnormal brain serotonin turnover are common in autism. Methods. Oxidative stress biomarkers with pro- and antioxidants were measured in the severe form of infantile autism (n = 38) and controls (n = 24). Children and parents had repeated testing for serum FR autoantibodies, spinal fluid dopamine and serotonin metabolites, pterins, and N5-methyltetrahydrofolate (MTHF). Statistical analysis assessed correlations between variables. Genetic analysis included the SLC6A4 and SLC29A4 genes encoding synaptic serotonin reuptake proteins. Results. Compared to controls, the autism group showed a significant increase in oxidative DNA damage in lymphocytes, plasma ceruloplasmin and copper levels with a high copper/zinc ratio, thiol proteins, and superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity. Vitamin C levels were significantly diminished. In most autistic patients, the vitamin A (64%) and D (70%) levels were low. Serum FR autoantibodies fluctuating over 5–7 week periods presented in 68% of all autistic children, 41% of parents vs. 3.3% of control children and their parents. CSF showed lowered serotonin 5-hydroxyindole acetic acid (5HIAA) metabolites in 13 (34%), a low 5HIAA to HVA (dopamine metabolite) ratio in 5 (13%), low 5HIAA and MTHF in 2 (5%), and low MTHF in 8 patients (21%). A known SLC6A4 mutation was identified only in 1 autistic child with low CSF 5HIAA and a novel SLC29A4 mutation was identified in identical twins. Low CSF MTHF levels among only 26% of subjects can be explained by the fluctuating FR antibody titers. Two or more aberrant pro-oxidant and/or antioxidant factors predisposed to low CSF serotonin metabolites. Three autistic children having low CSF 5HIAA and elevated oxidative stress received antioxidative supplements followed by CSF 5HIAA normalisation. Conclusion. In autism, we found diverse combinations for FR autoimmunity and/or oxidative stress, both amenable to treatment. Parental and postnatal FR autoantibodies tend to block folate passage to the brain affecting folate-dependent pathways restored by folinic acid treatment, while an abnormal redox status tends to induce reduced serotonin turnover, corrected by antioxidant therapy. Trial Registration. The case-controlled study was approved in 2008 by the IRB at Liège University (Belgian Number: B70720083916). Lay Summary. Children with severe infantile autism frequently have serum folate receptor autoantibodies that block the transport of the essential vitamin folate across the blood-brain barrier to the brain. Parents are often asymptomatic carriers of these serum folate receptor autoantibodies, which in mothers can block folate passage across the placenta to their unborn child. This folate deficiency during the child’s intrauterine development may predispose to neural tube defects and autism. Oxidative stress represents a condition with the presence of elevated toxic oxygen derivatives attributed to an imbalance between the formation and protection against these toxic reactive oxygen derivatives. Oxidative stress was found to be present in autistic children where these reactive oxygen derivatives can cause damage to DNA, which changes DNA function and regulation of gene expression. In addition, excessive amounts of these toxic oxygen derivatives are likely to damage the enzyme producing the neuromessenger serotonin in the brain, diminished in about 1/3 of the autistic children. Testing children with autism for oxidative stress and its origin, as well as testing for serum folate receptor autoantibodies, could open new approaches towards more effective treatments.

Review Article

Is Earlier Better? The Relationship between Age When Starting Early Intervention and Outcomes for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Selective Review

Although the conventional wisdom is that “earlier is better” when it comes to intervention for children with ASD, it is not clear what evidence exists to support this notion. This review examined a group of studies that addressed outcomes for young children with ASD who started early intervention at a range of ages. The review was selective by including only papers that examined the age of initiation of treatment as well as baseline cognitive, language, or adaptive level and, in addition, employed a method to control for the covariance between early ability level and age of beginning intervention. Fourteen studies were identified and then compared on methods and outcomes. The support for “earlier is better” was mixed, but it was clear that complex relationships among predictor variables need to be explored in order to understand the role of age of starting early intervention for later outcomes.

Research Article

Neural Mechanisms of Vicarious Reward Processing in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Previous studies examining the neural substrates of reward processing in ASD have explored responses to rewards for oneself but not rewards earned for others (i.e., vicarious reward). This omission is notable given that vicarious reward processing is a critical component of creating and maintaining social relationships. The current study examined the neural mechanisms of vicarious reward processing in 15 adults with ASD and 15 age- and gender-matched typically developing controls. Individuals with ASD demonstrated attenuated activation of reward-related regions during vicarious reward processing. Altered connectivity was also observed in individuals with ASD during reward receipt. These findings of altered neural sensitivity to vicarious reward processing may represent a mechanism that hinders the development of social abilities in ASD.

Research Article

AMBRA1, Autophagy, and the Extreme Male Brain Theory of Autism

The extreme male brain theory of autism posits that its male bias is mediated by exaggeration of male-biased sex differences in the expression of autism-associated traits found in typical populations. The theory is supported by extensive phenotypic evidence, but no genes have yet been described with properties that fit its predictions. The autophagy-associated gene AMBRA1 represents one of the top genome-wide “hits” in recent GWAS studies of schizophrenia, shows sex-differential expression, and has been linked with autism risk and traits in humans and mice, especially or exclusively among females. We genotyped the AMBRA1 autism-risk SNP in a population of typical humans who were scored for the dimensional expression of autistic and schizotypal traits. Females, but not males, homozygous for the GG genotype showed a significant increase in score for the single trait, the Autism Quotient-Imagination subscale, that exhibits a strong, significant male bias in typical populations. As such, females with this genotype resembled males for this highly sexually dimorphic, autism-associated phenotype. These findings support the extreme male brain hypothesis and indicate that sex-specific genetic effects can mediate aspects of risk for autism.

Research Article

Neural Mechanisms of Reward Prediction Error in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Few studies have explored neural mechanisms of reward learning in ASD despite evidence of behavioral impairments of predictive abilities in ASD. To investigate the neural correlates of reward prediction errors in ASD, 16 adults with ASD and 14 typically developing controls performed a prediction error task during fMRI scanning. Results revealed greater activation in the ASD group in the left paracingulate gyrus during signed prediction errors and the left insula and right frontal pole during thresholded unsigned prediction errors. Findings support atypical neural processing of reward prediction errors in ASD in frontostriatal regions critical for prediction coding and reward learning. Results provide a neural basis for impairments in reward learning that may contribute to traits common in ASD (e.g., intolerance of unpredictability).

Research Article

Improving Outcome in Infantile Autism with Folate Receptor Autoimmunity and Nutritional Derangements: A Self-Controlled Trial

Background. In contrast to multiple rare monogenetic abnormalities, a common biomarker among children with infantile autism and their parents is the discovery of serum autoantibodies directed to the folate receptor alpha (FRα) localized at blood-brain and placental barriers, impairing physiologic folate transfer to the brain and fetus. Since outcome after behavioral intervention remains poor, a trial was designed to treat folate receptor alpha (FRα) autoimmunity combined with correction of deficient nutrients due to abnormal feeding habits. Methods. All participants with nonsyndromic infantile autism underwent a routine protocol measuring CBC, iron, vitamins, coenzyme Q10, metals, and trace elements. Serum FRα autoantibodies were assessed in patients, their parents, and healthy controls. A self-controlled therapeutic trial treated nutritional derangements with addition of high-dose folinic acid if FRα autoantibodies tested positive. The Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) monitored at baseline and following 2 years of treatment was compared to the CARS of untreated autistic children serving as a reference. Results. In this self-controlled trial (82 children; mean age ± SD: 4.4 ± 2.3 years; male:female ratio: 4.8:1), FRα autoantibodies were found in 75.6 % of the children, 34.1 % of mothers, and 29.4 % of fathers versus 3.3 % in healthy controls. Compared to untreated patients with autism (n=84) whose CARS score remained unchanged, a 2-year treatment decreased the initial CARS score from severe (mean ± SD: 41.34 ± 6.47) to moderate or mild autism (mean ± SD: 34.35 ± 6.25; paired t-test p<0.0001), achieving complete recovery in 17/82 children (20.7 %). Prognosis became less favorable with the finding of higher FRα autoantibody titers, positive maternal FRα autoantibodies, or FRα antibodies in both parents. Conclusions. Correction of nutritional deficiencies combined with high-dose folinic acid improved outcome for autism, although the trend of a poor prognosis due to maternal FRα antibodies or FRα antibodies in both parents may warrant folinic acid intervention before conception and during pregnancy.

Autism Research and Treatment
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