Study Shows Link Between The Brain Function of Autistic Children and Their Siblings

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One of the known symptoms of Autism is for those with the disorder to have difficulty reading facial expressions of other people. A recent study has suggested, however that siblings of those with Autism show a similar lack of activity in the area of the brain that controls empathy. Researchers suggest that this may be a helpful biomarker for identifying the cause of Autism.

Just this month, Science Daily published an article about this study. Dr. Michael Spencer led this study and says: “The findings provide a springboard to investigate what specific genes are associated with this biomarker. The brain’s response to facial emotion could be a fundamental building block in causing autism and its associated difficulties.”

Previously, studies have shown that the brains of children with Autism process facial expressions differently than the ‘normal’ brain. This study was the first time that the connection between Autistic children and their siblings. Both show a lack of activity when reading others’ facial expressions. The siblings had no signs of Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, however they had a lower activity in the areas of the brain that enables us to read facial expressions and controls empathy than those who had no familial connection to Autism.

The only control that differed in the study was whether the non-Autism sibling had a sibling with Autism, it can possibly indicate that the differences can be due to the gene that causes the child to be at a genetic risk for Autism. How is it though, that only one sibling has Autism and the other doesn’t? It is known that in a family that has one child with Autism, the likelihood of having another child with Autism is 20x higher. However what about these families’ differed to where one child did not develop Autism?

Dr. Spencer says:   “It is likely that in the sibling who develops autism additional as yet unknown steps — such as further genetic, brain structure or function differences — take place to cause autism.”

It’s questions like these that Dr. Spencer’s team is looking at. Finding this similarity puts us one step closer to finding the true cause of Autism. While we’re sure of certain diets, habits, and environmental factors that can trigger symptoms of Autism, the cause of Autism is a step in the right direction of finding a cure.

We’re keeping our eye on this one. Stay tuned for news as we get it!

Sleep Issues And Autism: The Link and Treatment

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We’ve discussed many symptoms of Autism that seem to be very common amongst children. From stomach issues to hyperactivity, the list of symptoms is very long. One that we haven’t yet discussed is sleep. Several studies show that children with Autism have a higher chance of developing sleep issues than those children who do not have Autism. Why is this? And more importantly, what can be done to calm this symptom and assist in the treatment of the symptomatic disorder?

A great deal of Autistic children are consistently hyperactive. This behavior, especially around bedtime does not tire out the child, so much as prep their bodies for more energy-driven activity. Think about when you exercise. Many people say that after exercising, they feel energized and ready to start their day. A small amount of people exercise and then go immediately to bed. Autistic children may also experience falling asleep for only a few hours and then waking again.

The brain is filled with neurotransmitters. Each can be categorized as excitatory or inhibitory and regulates different functions of the body. The primary inhibitory transmitter in the brain is GABA. The function of GABA is to control the output of excitatory neurotransmitters. Elevated levels of GABA are usually a sign of increased activity. High levels of GABA with excess activity result in sleep issues and other symptoms including seizures, insomnia, and hyperactivity.

The book NO MORE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS: A PROVEN PROGRAM TO CONQUER INSOMNIA, written by Peter Hauri and Shirley Linde, discusses self regulated treatment for insomnia. In the book, Hauri and Linde explore ways in which you can get ready for sleep. Often, even as adults without Autism, we try very hard to get to sleep when we think and feel tired, but we have difficulty falling asleep. This occurs too in children, especially those with Autism.  As much as the child may be tired, their constant activity promotes more energy and the production of more energy in the body that does the exact opposite than induce sleep.

There have also been studies (mentioned here) regarding the use of over the counter Melatonin to regulate sleep. Melatonin occurs naturally in the body and is produced by the pineal gland in the center of the brain. The primary function of Melatonin is to regulate the wake-sleep cycle by lowering the body temperature and inducing natural drowsiness. If the levels of Melatonin are low in the body, which is often found in Autistic children, then falling asleep can be complicated.

Melatonin serves another purpose as an antioxidant and is able to absorb free radicals in the body. Free Radicals in excess can act negatively against the healthy production of brain cells. Free Radicals have also been named as a cause of cell damage.

A healthy sleep schedule is essential to treating Autism. Not only because the body needs rest, but to regulate neurotransmitters

Some ways to promote a healthy sleep patterns are:

-Omitting food and intake 2-4 hours before bedtime. Remember, food is burned by the body and made into energy.
-Cutting out all naptime for the child throughout the day. Avoid bright lights like TV, computers, laptops, Wii games past 8 PM. Take a warm bath if needed for 20 minutes before bedtime.
-It is suggested (here) that children with Autism get 12 hours of sleep.
-Encourage sleep to take place in a dark room. If your child needs to get up at 7AM for daycare, and they have to go to bed at 7PM to get the right amount of sleep, consider sun blocking curtains.