Exploring the mystery behind autism

PHILADELPHIA - December 7, 2009 The CDC says about one-percent of 8-year-olds are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. That's one out of every 100, a 50-percent jump from just two years ago.

But, now, new cutting-edge brain research is helping unlock the mystery of the autistic brain and maybe give these children a whole different future.

8-year-old Zander Pridy has no trouble reading big words like magnetoencephalograpy lab.

"I read books of science and watch this cool show called Nova."

Zander is helping scientists make some discoveries of their own. He has an autism spectrum disorder known as Asperger Syndrome.

Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia are using an MEG, short for magnetoencephalograpy, to study the brain waves of children, like Zander, with autism disorders.

"We're trying to study how children's brains respond to stimuli to sounds, to words, to speech," said lead researcher Tim Roberts, of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

They are hoping to unlock the mysteries of how an autistic brain works and Roberts says new clues are already emerging.

"When you hear a sound, the brain responds. When a child with autism hears a sound, their brain responds too, but a little bit later. So what we're seeing is a fraction of second, a split second delay in recognizing that sound."

Roberts goes on to explain how that plays out in how children with autism learn and communicate, "What happens is as speech becomes more complicated, we have more and more sounds building up and these delays cascade on each other leading to a difficulty in perceiving or recognizing the word."

For Zander those delays mean that too many sounds can be a real distraction, especially in the classroom.

"His teacher has an amplification device she wears and he has a speaker on his desk so that his teacher's voice stands out," said Tara Pridy, Zander's mother.

Tara says her son also struggles with conversation.

"He monologues. He'll get going and someone has to tell him the person is not interested anymore. They were interested, but you're speaking too long about the subject so we say TMI - too much information."

It's an example of some of the difficulties that kids like Zander have in relating with their peers.

"Kids with autism really have a difficult time with social perception understanding people's expressions."

Dr. Robert Schultz is head of the hospital's Center for Autism Research. He's introducing 13-year-old Garrett Hammond to a mock MRI to help him relax for the real test.

Dr. Schultz is using MRIs to understand the biology of the autistic brain.

"When we ask children with autism to do specific tasks that we know they have difficulty on, those areas of the brain that normally do those tasks are underactive."

In one MRI scan of a typical brain the red areas show activity in the parts of the brain that understand faces and expressions.

"This is now an average of a group of boys with autism and you can see when they're looking at faces they have much less activity in red. Kids with autism have under activation in areas of the brain which mediate things that they're not really good at."

The research won't answer the question, what causes autism? But Schultz says it may lead to better diagnosis and earlier intervention.

"The ultimate goal is to understand at the level of the cell, the nerve cell in the brain, why are those cells functioning differently. And if we can understand why they're functioning differently, there's probably going to be a combination of treatments."

One of the main goals of this research to help determine if there's a biological marker - an indication in the brain that a child has autism. That way doctors could diagnose the disorder even before symptoms appear and start intervention even sooner.

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