February 23, 2009 02:28 PM Eastern Time
Stanford/Packard Researchers Recruit Children for Study of the Biology of Autism
STANFORD, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Scientists have put forward many theories about why children with autism struggle to communicate with other people, but they have yet to find definitive answers. Now, a research team at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital is recruiting autistic and typically developing children and their parents for a study of whether one particular biological mechanism plays a role in causing the disorder.
The researchers will test whether impaired social behaviors in autism are linked to levels of the hormone oxytocin. In healthy individuals, oxytocin primes maternal behavior, enhances social interactions, increases the ability to read facial expressions and recognize individuals, and boosts trust and empathy. Preliminary research has hinted that autism may be associated with oxytocin deficits, but those studies involved limited samples.
“We’re hoping to find a biomarker for autism,” said lead researcher Karen Parker, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. Parker and colleagues will study 50 children ages 3 to 12 who have been diagnosed with autism; 50 of their healthy siblings, some of whom may have moderate social or emotional impairments; and 50 typically-developing children who do not have siblings with or a family history of autism. The researchers will test whether oxytocin signaling falls on a spectrum that matches variations in social behaviors. If the findings show a correlation between oxytocin and behavior, further research will be needed to determine whether a causal relationship exists.
“Autistic” and “typical” social behaviors exist on a continuous spectrum, Parker explained. That means children diagnosed with autism have varied degrees of social and emotional impairment, and typically-developing children also vary in their social and emotional function. The researchers hope that participants in the study will represent the whole of the behavioral spectrum.
Children in the study will complete an IQ test and several standard psychological and behavioral tests. Each child will give one blood sample, which will be used to measure oxytocin levels and to look for tiny variations in the gene that encodes the oxytocin receptor. The researchers suspect such gene variations change how the oxytocin signal is transmitted, and will test whether certain variations might be characteristic of autism.
Parker is collaborating with child psychiatrist Antonio Hardan, MD, director of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic at Packard Children’s Hospital, and Joachim Hallmayer, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. The study is funded by a two-year, $300,000 award from the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative.