Tuesday Thoughts: Autism, Hurricanes, and Mud

A big theory in autism research involves what is called prenatal stress, or maternal stress.  The idea is that a stressful event, such as a hurricane, experienced during a woman’s pregnancy may lead to an increased risk of her child having autism. Several studies supporting this idea have been published.  For example, one of my advisor’s papers, published in 2005, demonstrated that the experience of stressors during a specific time period during pregnancy (weeks 21 to 32) may be related to an increased risk of autism.  Stressors were assessed via surveys and included events like the death of a spouse or being fired from a job.

Confusingly, however, these results conflict with those of very recent studies.   It seems this idea may not be as simple as originally thought. This past June, a paper was published that did not find an increased risk of autism associated with prenatal stress.  This study examined many of the same stressors experienced by pregnant women as those of the above paper, yet the authors did not find the same results.

Results from another study, presented at the 2012 International Meeting for Autism Research, further complicate this picture.  The study examined the incidence of autism in children of mothers who experienced psychosocial stressors, such as physical abuse, during pregnancy.  The twist is that physical abuse experienced during pregnancy was not associated with an increased risk of autism.  Instead, children of women who experienced fear of their partner or physical or emotional abuse in the years just before giving birth had a higher risk of autism.

Why did two very similar studies produce opposite results? Why does it seem that physical abuse during pregnancy is not associated with autism when abuse beforehand is? Many reasons may lie beneath these conflicting and confusing results.  Potentially, gene variants associated with autism are playing a role alongside prenatal stress in causing this disorder. Or different techniques used to carry out the above studies may have contributed to the differing findings. Otherwise, the reasons are about as clear as mud.  For now, the best we can do is put on our finest analytical goggles, jump into the data, and start sorting through the mud.

Photo source: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=79008

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Tuesday Thoughts: Pieces of the Puzzle

The world of autism research has been hopping lately with several new studies claiming to explain potential causes of autism and the apparent increasing incidence of this disorder.  The media, including major publications, has jumped on board with the excitement about these findings.

One study outlines the potential of increased age in fathers to heighten the risk of autism in their children.  The authors of this study explain that older dads pass on more small DNA mutations to their children than do younger dads, a difference which may explain some cases of autism.  Considering that, in the population studied, the average paternal age has increased over time, it’s easy to see how the authors also conclude that increased paternal age may contribute to the increasing incidence of autism.

Other studies recently published, and then reviewed in The New York Times, implicate heightened maternal immune response in the development of autism in the womb.  Infections such as the flu seem to bring about an exaggerated immune response in some pregnant women, leading to disruptions in the development of their children.  Many studies have demonstrated a relationship between this prenatal immune system dysregulation and autism.

What’s missing in the media’s interpretations of these studies?  In the midst of flashy results, the fact that autism is still largely unexplained gets pushed out of the picture.  Although there seem to be breakthroughs on the horizon, the studies outlined above may only account for a fraction of the cases of autism. These findings and their implications are just pieces of the puzzle.

Science writer Virginia Hughes stated in a recent piece,  “how many times do researchers have to say, ‘The cause of autism is really complicated’ before journalists and the public accept that the disorder can’t be explained by a gene, a brain scan, a father’s age, a gluten-rich diet or risk factor du jour?”

I share Hughes’s sentiments.  We are dealing with what seems like a mega-10,000 piece puzzle, and we’ve yet to find all the pieces.  When we’ve gathered as may as we can, then, and only then, will we be able to put them together and start to explain.

Tuesday Thoughts: the blame game

      

Don’t you just love how during finals your world becomes a little microcosm of nothing but studying and coffee? That would be what happened to me last week, when Tuesday Thoughts weren’t, well, thought of until Thursday afternoon.

What reminded me of my endeavor to blog regularly was something one of my lab mates shared with me.  Last week, Autism Speaks posted a link to a blog post on it’s Facebook page.  In the post, an MD/PhD student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine discussed the potential links between autism incidence and increased parental age.

The striking thing is nature of the 110 Facebook comments that followed the link.  Parents, caregivers, and even people without children with autism lashed out against the study, the student, and science as a whole.  Talk about public communication backfiring. These individuals seemed to interpret the post as an expression of blame against parents who had their children at older ages.  Interestingly, their responses didn’t admonish this supposed blaming.  They simply repositioned it the FDA, pharmaceutical companies, and researchers.

My question is: Should we be playing this blame game?

In the post against which so many argued, the grad student humbly admits what all autism researchers know to be true:  We know X,Y, & Z about autism, which begs A to Z more questions. The clash between scientists and the community regarding autism stems out of this predicament.  There is still a lot we don’t know.

Understandably so, parents of children with autism are desperate for answers. And researchers are desperately trying to provide them. What’s for certain is that no one should be blamed when so many questions remain unanswered. The blame game is only throwing a road block in the long path ahead.

{This post was originally published at my previous blog, http://postitjunkie.blogspot.com/}