Rather than waste time debating whether or not Autism has increased or is just more frequently reported, more fruit will result from studies like this one by researchers at Kanazawa University in Japan. As the numbers of children diagnosed with autism rises faster and faster, Kyung-min et al chase a non-invasive test for diagnosing this debilitating childhood developmental disorder. Using specialized brain scanning technologies and comparisons between conventionally diagnosed autistic children versus those considered developing typically, they differentiated one from the other by motor-related gamma oscillations (measurable variations in specific brain waves associated with nerve inhibition).
Most of you reading this already know that autism stands out as a neurodevelopmental disorder which may impair a child’s socialization skills, verbal skills, motor skills and ability to communicate with others. Beginning in early childhood, diagnosing confidently before a higher severity develops remains difficult. Everyone agrees that objective diagnostic and monitoring clinical tools are very much needed. Such tools are called biomarkers in scientific language.
“A key hypothesis of the neurophysiology of ASD is that the cortical excitatory and inhibitory (E/I) balance is altered by decreased neuronal inhibition in patients with ASD (Rubenstein and Merzenich, 2003; Rubenstein, 2010).” Basically, an underlying causative or at least correlative mechanism appears to be a relative decrease in neuronal inhibition. Such decreased inhibition correlates with decreased GABA (Gamma-amino butyric acid, a neurotransmitter) function in the brain (citations provided in article). Researchers utilized the knowledge that gamma band oscillations (something that can be measured by special MRI’s) correlate with GABA and thus can serve as a marker for GABA nerve inhibitory activity.
The article cites several studies using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) which revealed lower levels of GABA in various brain regions of children with autism. Besides abnormalities in the amount of GABA inhibition, abnormalities in motor function have also been documented in children with autism. The researchers connected all the dots to see if they could measure motor-based reflexes using a simple video game setting and then measure gamma oscillations as a marker of GABA inhibitory activity. In short, they were successful in demonstrating that the children with autism both exhibited a slower response time in the simulated video game and lower gamma oscillations on the MRS measurement of gamma oscillations.
I always take care in raising the hopes of parents in terms of autism diagnosis and treatment. While functional medicine offers more hope in terms of sometimes reversing developmental decline, we do not always find an underlying trigger to target. When we find a trigger such as food allergies, leaky gut, heavy metals, or immune dysfunction, we see great changes in children’s development. For those patients in which a clear trigger remains elusive, we can work at overall gut, immune, and neurological recovery and see some benefit. If research like this above described can shed some light into the basic disease mechanisms, we can someday offer even more hope to suffering families. At the very least, such research may allow more definitive diagnosis at an earlier age when interventions may have greater hope of cure. Either way, we can aim to help these precious children live healthier more abundant lives.
Kyung-min An, Takashi Ikeda, Yuko Yoshimura, Chiaki Hasegawa, Daisuke N. Saito, Hirokazu Kumazaki, Tetsu Hirosawa, Yoshio Minabe, Mitsuru Kikuchi. Altered Gamma Oscillations during Motor Control in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2018; 38 (36): 7878 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1229-18.2018