Israeli university opens centre for study of autism
A NEW centre at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva hopes to make it easier to diagnose the cause of autism in children.
Dr Ilan Dinstein, who has set up the Negev Autism Centre, believes it will provide “critical information” which will enable earlier diagnosis and the development of new treatments.
Autism is not a single condition but a variety of distinct disorders that share the same name.
“While in some cases the reason may be a problem in a specific gene, in others it may be exposure to a certain environment,” Dr Dinstein said.
“Identifying the different causes, risk factors and sub-types of autism is the biggest task facing autism researchers throughout the world, because children with different types of autism are likely to respond to distinct therapies and interventions.”
As one example, he cited the rare genetic disorder known as Rett Syndrome, which was classified as one of the “autism spectrum disorders” until 2013.
“Now that the distinct biology of Rett is clear, scientists around the world are testing medications that can ameliorate or even cure the disorder in animal models,” he said.
In other cases, autism has been caused by environmental exposures. It was found, for instance, that pregnant women who took Valproate to treat epilepsy had a remarkably high rate of children with autism. As a result, pregnant women now use alternatives.
“Rett syndrome is a relatively easy sub-group to identify, because everyone in this sub-group has a specific malfunctioning gene named MECP2,” he said. “Other types of autism, for example, might require us to measure a combination of characteristics such as sleep problems, sensory hypersensitivities and specific hormonal imbalances.”
The centre, the first of its kind in the Middle East, is based at the Soroka University Medical Centre, which is situated across the street from BGU. Since it is the only medical centre in the area, around 90 per cent of the children that they treat for autism are born there, which gives researchers unique access to patient records.
The new autism facility integrates researchers from many fields, including medicine, genetics, molecular biology, epidemiology, neuroscience, psychology and biomedical engineering.
“It’s all about connecting the dots,” said Dr Dinstein, who recently visited Reading University’s Centre for Autism and spoke to parents at the new Gesher school due to open this autumn in London. “We have to understand how different measures from children with autism relate to each other.”
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