Research on Autism and Genes
While it is known that heredity plays a major role in complex disorders like autism, the identification of specific genes that confer vulnerability to such disorders has proven extremely difficult. Once autism-linked genes are identified, however, scientists will bring to bear sophisticated research tools to find out what activates them, what brain components they code for, and how they affect behavior. The prospect of acquiring such molecular knowledge holds great hope for the engineering of new therapies.
Evidence suggests that unaffected family members may share with their affected relatives genes that predispose for milder behavioral characteristics that are qualitatively similar to those of autism. For example, some relatives of people with autism may have mild social, language, or reading problems. Family members also may share telltale neurochemical signatures that may be implicated in the disorder. Researchers are studying such families to characterize these behavioral and biological traits, in hopes of tracing the variations in the genetic blueprint that contribute to autism.
Autism Research Into New Treatments
The behavioral and cognitive functioning of individuals with autism can improve with the help of psychosocial and pharmacological interventions. Among psychosocial treatments, intensive, sustained special education programs and behavior therapy early in life can increase the ability of children with autism to acquire language and the ability to learn. Autism research teams are evaluating the effectiveness of parent-training interventions that are tailored to the particular characteristics of the child and family.
In adults with autism, some research studies have found beneficial effects of the antidepressant medications clomipramine and fluoxetine. There is also evidence that the antipsychotic medication haloperidol can be helpful; however, the risk of serious side effects is significant in children.
The increasing use of psychotropic medications to treat autism in children has spotlighted an urgent need for more studies of such drugs in youths. One study is evaluating the atypical antipsychotic risperidone for reducing aggressive self-injurious behavior in children with autism.
Other autism research is investigating valproate for diminishing this behavior in adolescents with the disorder. Studies are examining dose range and regimen of medications and their mechanisms of action, safety, efficacy, and effects on cognition, behavior, and development.