Pioneering new methods for diagnosing and supporting people with autism and Asperger syndrome

Cambridge scientists were the first to discover that the amygdala is under-active when people with autism and Asperger Syndrome are trying to decode emotional facial expressions

Most children will learn to socialize and communicate without any effort. They integrate easily into peer groups and are happy forming friendships. However, others will have considerable difficulties in socializing, tending to remain on the margins of any peer group, often quite isolated. If, alongside such socialcommunication difficulties, the child has unusually narrow interests and strongly repetitive behaviour, the chances are they may have autism or Asperger Syndrome; both are subgroups of the autistic spectrum. The key difference between autism and Asperger Syndrome is that in autism the child will learn to talk at a very late stage, often saying no words before the age of two. The child may also have learning difficulties, with a below average IQ and developmental delay. In contrast, in Asperger Syndrome, children will talk on time and have no learning difficulties, although they will still find socialising very challenging and often be ‘obsessed’ with narrow topics of interest. Autism is estimated to touch the lives of over 500,000 families throughout the UK, with as many as 1.5 million Americans believed to have some form of autistic spectrum condition. These numbers can be expected to rise. Based on statistics from the United States Department of Education, autism is growing at a startling rate of 10-17 percent per year.

The Autism Research Centre, in the Department of Psychiatry in Cambridge, aims to understand the biomedical causes of autism and Asperger Syndrome. With research showing that autism and Asperger Syndrome run in families, Cambridge researchers have been using molecular genetic studies to identify ‘susceptibility genes’. Collaborations with researchers at the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre have been used to pinpoint specific structural and functional differences in the brains of people with autism and Asperger Syndrome. Cambridge scientists were the first to discover that a part of the brain called the amygdala is under-active when people with autism and Asperger Syndrome are trying to decode emotional facial expressions.

Cambridge researchers have shown that higher prenatal testosterone levels are associated with reduced social skills, but superior attention to detail in infants

Because autism and Asperger Syndrome affect boys far more often than girls, Cambridge neuroscientists have been driving research into foetal testosterone in order to examine its effects on brain development and postnatal behaviour. Cambridge has analysed the effects of prenatal testosterone levels, produced by the foetus and measured via amniocentesis during the first trimester of pregnancy, on autistic behaviour. Foetal testosterone shapes brain development to alter an individual’s cognitive profile by binding to androgen receptors in the brain, the amygdala being one region that is rich in such receptors. Strikingly, Cambridge researchers have shown that higher prenatal testosterone levels are associated with reduced social skills but superior attention to detail in infants.

Autism and Asperger Syndrome are evident in early childhood. This has led Cambridge neuroscientists to pioneer new methods for diagnosing autism in children as young as 18 months. Researchers in the Department of Experimental Psychology are studying sensory processing in hearing and vision in autism in order to test how the sensory hyper-sensitivity in these children, and their remarkable attention to detail, relates to their difficulties in social development. Building on research in Cambridge, the Autism Research Centre, together with the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, have recently launched a novel animation DVD to help young children with autism learn about emotions.