More than one ball in the air  pg. 5

The hope, these genetics researchers agree, is that finding the genes that cause autism or increase an individual’s susceptibility for the disease will improve diagnostic capabilities and pave the way for new biologically-based treatments, perhaps even preventions.

Robotic machines, like the one shown here, can help researchers analyze large amounts of genetic material quickly and accurately.  Micropipettes deliver tiny amounts of genetic material into wells in the sample plate.  Each well may contain the DNA of a different individual.  Robotic plate preparation is important for tracking and maintaining the integrity of the samples.
Photo by Anne Rayner
“It could be something as simple as giving folate in pregnancy to decrease the rate of spina bifida,” Folstein says. “We just don’t know right now.”

A problem with wiring

Proceeding in lockstep with the search for autism genes have been efforts to understand the neurobiology of the disorder. Attention has focused on defining the brain regions affected by autism, with the hope that knowing which brain regions are affected and how will guide diagnosis and treatment strategies.

Autopsies and brain imaging have revealed that brains of individuals with autism are larger than normal, on average, and that there are alterations in the brainstem, cerebellum, and “limbic” structures, like the amygdala and the hippocampus, which are involved in emotional processing. But no clear picture of an “autistic” brain has emerged.

“Could you hand a CT scan to a neurologist and say, ‘Does this child have autism based on your knowledge of structure?’ The answer is no,” says Stephen M. Camarata, Ph.D., deputy director of Research on Communication and Learning at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. “Clearly something is wrong in the brain, but we suspect it’s not going to be a gross anatomical difference. More likely, it’s going to involve interactions among different areas of the brain and how these areas integrate information.”

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