Monday, March 26, 2007

Discover Magazine Reviews Investigations into Autism-Environment Link

Discover Magazine's April issue has an interesting story that reviews the recent work of medical researchers -- people like Martha Herbert, a child neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard and Craig Newschaffer, an epidemiologist at Drexel University School of Public Health -- who are investigating a genetic predisposition to autism and potential environmental triggers for autism spectrum disorders.

You can find the article, "Autism: It's Not Just in the Head," at Discover's website by clicking here.

Dr. Herbert gave a lecture about her research, which you can read about in "Studying Autism as a Whole Body Condition," by clicking here; there is some overlap to the issues covered in Discover's article.

What's exciting is that these accomplished researchers are very enthusiastic about the possibilities of their scientific inquiries, and that they could result in some medical treatments that make a difference in the lives of people with autism by changes in diet and other conditions. The Discover article specifically refers to the regimens advocated by the Defeat Autism Now doctors, for example, as mitigating some children's autistic symptoms over time.

What's also tough to convey, in my opinion, even in a well-documented story such as this magazine piece, is the complex, wide-ranging nature of autism spectrum disorders. It's interesting to note that a number of researchers are starting to refer to autism in the plural, as autisms, and that medical investigators who make progress on one of these autisms may not make progress on all of them. (See this article for an example of that idea.)

Or, as the researchers tell Discover:

Herbert’s full-body perspective helps make sense of the confusion surrounding the diagnosis of autism and helps justify the increasingly common use of the plural “autisms” to describe the wide variations in this disorder. As Newschaffer points out, “Children with Asperger's syndrome certainly share a lot of the behaviors of those with more severe autism. But is it the same disease, and is it caused by the same thing? A number of significant features of autism are not part of the diagnostic schema right now, but eventually, those features may end up distinguishing one causal pathway from another. How is a child sleeping? Does he or she have gastrointestinal symptoms? By looking at those things we may see risk-factor associations pop out that we’ve never seen before.”

One last note. In 2006, Autism Bulletin featured Herbert as one of our picks for advocates of the year. See that story here.

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