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Scientists Discover Biomarker for Autism

Siblings of people with autism show a similar pattern of brain activity to that seen in people with autism when looking at emotional facial expressions.

ScienceDaily reports that Scientists from the University of Cambridge have identified reduced activity in the part of the brain associated with emotional facial expression which could be a marker for familial risk of Autism.

Dr Michael Spencer, who led the study from the University’s Autism Research Centre, said: “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.”

The Medical Research Council funded study is published on the 12th of July, in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Previous research has found that people with autism often struggle to read people’s emotions and that their brains process emotional facial expressions differently to people without autism. However, this is the first time scientists have found siblings of individuals with autism have a similar reduction in brain activity when viewing others’ emotions.

The problem with the potential biomarker they found was that it was ephemeral, meaning detection of the marker was temporary. Further adding to the problems is the fact that the marker is what is called a BOLD Signal. Which is a measurement of blood oxygen over a period of time. Biomarkers are usually extremely concrete things like a protein or a gene. A bit more or less blood in this-or-that part of the brain at this-or-that time is a much fuzzier thing.

The articles do not go into detail about the exact nature of the BOLD signal they discovered. So we don’t know if the signal is repeatable or somehow more clearly detectible than a normal BOLD signal.

The scientist remain enthusiastic that this will lead to greater discovery and possibly lead to causes and or cures for autism.

Professor Chris Kennard, chairman of the Medical Research Council funding board for the research, said:

“This is the first time that a brain response to different human facial emotions has been shown to have similarities in people with autism and their unaffected brothers and sisters. Innovative research like this improves our fundamental understanding of how autism is passed through generations affecting some and not others. This is an important contribution to the Medical Research Council’s strategy to use sophisticated techniques to uncover underpinning brain processes, to understand predispositions for disease, and to target treatments to the subtypes of complex disorders such as autism.”

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