Cracking the Enigma

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An autism research blog

Jon Brock
34 posts

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  • December 27, 2013
  • 05:15 AM

Autistic brains: Under- or over-connected?

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

SourceFor a while now, the prevailing view has been that the brains of people with autism are "underconnected" and that this lack of communication between different parts of the brain causes at least some of the features of autism. It's an intuitively plausible idea but it was always likely to be an over-simplification.Recently, a number of studies have pointed to the exact opposite - an increase in connectivity in autism. The emerging story is that kids with autism have "hyper connected" b........ Read more »

  • December 6, 2013
  • 04:14 PM

Does a baby's eye gaze really predict future autism?

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

Baby's gaze may signal autism, study finds. That was the headline in the New York Times. The BBC declared that Autism signs present in first months of life. Turning the hype up to 11, a Canadian website boldly announced that Researchers prove that autism can be diagnosed right at the infant stage and that intervention is possible.Nature, the journal that published the study, ran with Autism symptoms seen in babies, summarising the findings thus:Children with autism make less ........ Read more »

  • June 4, 2013
  • 07:13 PM

Transforming Autism Research: Reflections on IMFAR, RDoC, and DSM-5

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

The Kursaal Centre, San Sebastian. Venue for IMFAR 2013. Source“In many scientific problems, the difficulty is to state the question rightly; once that is done it may almost answer itself.” Jacob Bronowski*A year, it seems, is a long time in autism research. In May 2012, the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in Toronto was all about DSM-5 and the proposed changes to autism diagnosis contained therein. Up for discussion were the abolition of Asperger syndrome as a distinc........ Read more »

Insel, T., Cuthbert, B., Garvey, M., Heinssen, R., Pine, D., Quinn, K., Sanislow, C., & Wang, P. (2010) Research Domain Criteria (RDoC): Toward a New Classification Framework for Research on Mental Disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 167(7), 748-751. DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09091379  

  • March 5, 2013
  • 11:47 PM

Perfect match

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

I've got a new post over on the SFARI (Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative) blog discussing the use of control groups in autism research.Control groups are an essential part of autism research, providing a benchmark against which to assess those with autism. Finding, for instance, that participants with autism score an average of 68 percent on a test is meaningless if you don’t know how people who don’t have autism do on the same test.  A control group can also b........ Read more »

Kover ST, & Atwoo AK. (2013) Establishing equivalence: methodological progress in group-matching design and analysis. American journal on intellectual and developmental disabilities, 118(1), 3-15. PMID: 23301899  

  • December 7, 2012
  • 06:43 PM

DSM-5 field trials leave many questions unanswered

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

Last weekend, the American Psychiatry Association announced that the DSM-5 has been ratified and that changes to the diagnosis of various “mental disorders” would go ahead as planned early next year. The implications for autism are still unclear. Most of the published studies suggest a reduction in autism rates. However, the argument from the DSM-5 working group responsible for autism has always been that everyone should wait for the official field trials to be published before jumping to ........ Read more »

  • October 24, 2012
  • 09:19 AM

More DSM-5 confusion

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

One of the big concerns about forthcoming changes to autism diagnosis in DSM-5 is that the new rules may miss out a sizeable chunk of the autism population, particularly those who, under current diagnostic guidelines, would be considered to have Asperger’s Disorder or PDD-NOS. A number of studies published over the last year or so seemed to confirm those fears, although each of those studies had its limitations.Earlier this month, a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry by Marisela Huert........ Read more »

  • September 14, 2012
  • 12:13 PM

A genetic test for autism?

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

This week's big autism story was a genetic test able to predict with 70% accuracy [1] whether or not a child had autism. Rather than looking for a specific gene that might differentiate autistic from non-autistic people, Stan Skafidis and colleagues developed the test by combining information about many different genetic variations. Critically, having developed the test based on one set of genetic data, they then tested the test on genetic data from a completely new set of people.I don't wa........ Read more »

  • September 7, 2012
  • 05:58 PM

The messy science behind The Autism Enigma

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

Last Monday, the Australian current affairs program Four Corners featured a Canadian documentary entitled The Autism Enigma (it’s still currently available on iView in Australia). The main thrust of the program was that autism is caused by harmful bacteria in the gut. Not surprisingly, the program caused quite a stir, prompting responses from various members of the Australian autism research community. Critics argued that it over-simplified the problem of autism, ignored alternative expla........ Read more »

Finegold SM, Downes J, & Summanen PH. (2012) Microbiology of regressive autism. Anaerobe, 18(2), 260-2. PMID: 22202440  

  • July 19, 2012
  • 08:03 AM

Why do (some) autistic kids struggle to recognise faces?

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

This week, a guest post from the wonderful Ellie Wilson. Ellie's now at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, working with Declan Murphy. But she has the honourable distinction of being my first ever PhD student. The post is about the two studies that book-ended her thesis on face recognition in autism. Take it away, Ellie...Faces are essentially very similar: two eyes above a nose and a mouth. Yet most people are really good at noticing subtle differences between faces, and interpre........ Read more »

  • June 26, 2012
  • 06:50 AM

Did Alan Turing have Asperger syndrome?

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

Alan Turing (Kings College, Cambridge)It’s no exaggeration to say that Alan Turing was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Regarded as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, he also made ground-breaking contributions to the fields of mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Most famously, during World War II, he played a crucial role in cracking the Nazi's Enigma code.He was also, it's argued, a person with Asperger syndrome.There's something of a cottage ........ Read more »

O'Connell, H., & Fitzgerald, M. (2003) Did Alan Turing have Asperger's syndrome?. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 20(1), 28-31. info:/

  • May 2, 2012
  • 08:58 AM

Autism and the art of campervan maintenance

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

Sometimes, it's good to get away. In February, we spent two weeks cruising around the North Island of New Zealand in a campervan, quickly christened Campo by my four-year-old. We saw the giant Kauri trees of Waipoua and the giant sand dunes on 90 mile beach; we went sailing on the Bay of Islands and bathing in the volcanic springs of Hotwater Beach. And it only rained twice. I learnt a little of the art of campervan maintenance [1]. And, while I was under strict instructions not to do any w........ Read more »

  • March 29, 2012
  • 09:34 AM

Autism and intellectual disability in DSM-5

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

Earlier this week, I wrote about the recently published study by McPartland, Reichow and Volkmar, looking at the potential impact of the proposed DSM 5 criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder. There were caveats-a-plenty but the data suggested that autism rates may go down considerably as a result of the renegotiation of diagnostic borders. In fact, a new diagnosis, Social Communication Disorder, has been created to capture all the people who won't now make the ASD cut-off.In the comments, an........ Read more »

  • March 26, 2012
  • 12:42 PM

How will DSM 5 affect autism rates? The Yale study

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

In January, at a meeting of the Icelandic Medical Association, Yale researcher, Dr Fred Volkmar gave a presentation of data from a study looking at the implications of changes to autism diagnostic criteria in DSM 5. His conclusion was that many people who are currently diagnosed with autism, Asperger's, or PDD-NOS would not meet the new proposed criteria for autism spectrum disorder in DSM 5.Volkmar's remarks were picked up by the New York Times, who ran with the lede:"Proposed changes in the de........ Read more »

  • January 20, 2012
  • 06:40 PM

The Adventures of DataThief

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

Having spent much of the past week struggling to make sense of my data, it’s good to come home, pour a glass of wine, put on some Sharon Jones, and, er… play with somebody else’s data!Recently, I’ve discovered DataThief - an application that allows you to scan in a graph from a paper and extract the data points. Sometimes, this provides insights that really aren’t obvious from the original paper.The other week, for example, I came across an intriguing neuroimaging study reported on the........ Read more »

  • January 13, 2012
  • 07:51 AM

Do kids with autism have big brains?

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

Like most things in autism research, the idea that people with autism have big brains goes back to an observation in Leo Kanner’s original autism paper, where he noted that some of the kids in his group had larger than normal heads. Over the years, there have been dozens of studies looking directly or indirectly at the issue of brain size in autism. In 2005, Martha Herbert provided a comprehensive review [pdf] of 25 such studies, describing the tendency towards large brains as "the most re........ Read more »

Nordahl, C., Lange, N., Li, D., Barnett, L., Lee, A., Buonocore, M., Simon, T., Rogers, S., Ozonoff, S., & Amaral, D. (2011) Brain enlargement is associated with regression in preschool-age boys with autism spectrum disorders. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(50), 20195-20200. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1107560108  

  • November 28, 2011
  • 07:36 PM

A case of colour-emotion synaesthesia?

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

Anger he smiles, towering in shiny metallic purple armour.Queen Jealousy, envy waits behind him, her fiery green gown sneers at the grassy ground.Blue are the life giving waters taken for granted, they quietly understand.Once happy, turquoise armies lay opposite ready, but wonder why the fight is on.My red is so confident that he flashes trophies of war and ribbons of euphoria.Orange is young, full of daring but very unsteady for the first go round.My yellow in this case is not so mellow, in fac........ Read more »

  • October 26, 2011
  • 10:42 AM

The many faces of autism

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

Evidence and Artifacts: 1 in 110A few years ago, before I got into autism research, I worked on a couple of projects looking at Down syndrome and Williams syndrome. Down syndrome, I assume, is familiar to most readers. Williams syndrome is much rarer and less well known, but is of considerable interest to researchers, not least because the extremely sociable personalities of many people with Williams syndrome provide an interesting (although complex) contrast with autism.What these two syndromes........ Read more »

  • August 19, 2011
  • 07:58 AM

The curious case of the reversed pronoun

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

“You made a circle”, exclaimed Ethan proudly as he looked up from his drawing. “You did make a circle”, his mum acknowledged, ignoring the fact that, not for the first time, Ethan had reversed the pronoun, saying “you” when he should have said “I”. Ethan was one of six children from Providence, Rhode Island taking part in a study of child language development. Every couple of weeks, a researcher from Brown University would visit him and his mum at home, record, and then transcrib........ Read more »

  • August 14, 2011
  • 09:22 AM

On neural correlates and causation

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

The advent of neuroimaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has revolutionized autism research. We can now look into the brain and see the "neural correlates" of autism. But, as with any form of correlation, identifying a neural correlate doesn't necessarily mean that we have identified a neural cause.

A case in point. Earlier this week I stumbled across a press release doing the rounds of the internet, proclaiming that "Brain imaging research reveals why autistic indiv........ Read more »

  • July 8, 2011
  • 07:23 PM

Autism, temporal binding... and chiropractic

by Jon Brock in Cracking the Enigma

I'm famous. Well, sort of. Earlier this week, one of my colleagues sent me a link to a YouTube video in which chiropractic doctor David Sullivan discusses one of my papers on autism and how it influences his "evidence based practice". It's a classic of its genre. The video starts off with a spinning brain and funky science-o-mercial music. And Sullivan somehow manages to equate autism with a dodgy dial-up internet connection whilst weaving our  hypothesis in with Einstein and the space-time........ Read more »

Brock J, Brown CC, Boucher J, & Rippon G. (2002) The temporal binding deficit hypothesis of autism. Development and psychopathology, 14(2), 209-24. PMID: 12030688  

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