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.”


“Leg­endary”: Marty Sk­lar

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