What is autism?

The term autism spectrum disorder is used to describe lifelong developmental disabilities. People with this illness typically display symptoms including an inability to communicate properly with others, interact socially or fully comprehend the world around them.

Research suggests autism is caused by genetic defaults, however there is currently no blood test for the illness. Instead, a person is diagnosed after their behaviour and ability to interact with family and friends has been monitored. The majority of new cases are in young children.

People with autism are likely to have difficulty reacting to stimuli and trouble displaying their emotions. Further, ASD patients are often unable to focus for extended periods of time and therefore affected children are likely to have difficulty learning and trouble playing with others their own age.

While there is no known cure for ASDs, early intervention and a strong support network are seen as the key to improving a person’s ability to interact with others.

QBI research

Researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) are investigating how people with Autism Spectrum Disorder process social (for example, a pair of eyes) and non-social (for example, an arrow) cues. Further, the scientists are working to better understand the structure and function of the underlying brain regions implicated in the disorder.

In recent times, much of the work on ASD carried out at QBI has centred on recording the electrical activity of the brain. For example, ASD patients are asked to perform tasks in which their attention is directed by social or non-social cues, during which time electrical activity over the scalp is recorded. This technique allows scientists to determine whether the brain is functioning differently in people with and without ASD by elucidating characteristic patterns of neural communication between various brain regions. Such research is essential for improving the researchers’ knowledge of why people with ASD have difficulty with social situations.

Further, QBI investigators are attempting to find causal links to autism using the molecules neurexin and neuroligin, which are involved in learning and memory, and attention processes in the brain.

“A mismatch or mutation of these proteins can result in behavioural and cognitive deficiencies such as autism. We are now looking at interactions between neurexin and neuroligin, and how these and other similar molecules are fundamental to maintaining a healthy brain,” visual and sensory neuroscientist Associate Professor Charles Claudianos explained.

He said neuroscientists in this area of research chose to use the fly and honeybee models because they had simple and accessible nervous systems, as well as being comprehensive genetic research tools.

Results of the research will hopefully produce new clinical diagnostic methods for autism, and also result in a wider understanding ofintellectual disability, developmental delay, and other childhood psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.