A break­through autism study finds a sur­pris­ing clue in chil­dren's mouths

Newsweek - - News - BY JES­SICA WAPNER @jes­si­cawap­ner

Autism Break­through

any health con­di­tion re­quir­ing spe­cial care beck­ons us to ask why it hap­pened. Un­der­stand the cause, and we’re closer to solv­ing the problem. So it is with autism spec­trum disorder (ASD), which cur­rently af­fects about one in 59 chil­dren—a jump from one in 150 chil­dren in 2000. That in­crease has led to a fren­zied de­sire to find a cure.

A new study fo­cused on baby teeth of­fers some prom­ise. Re­searchers at the Ic­ahn School of Medicine at Mount Si­nai wanted to ex­am­ine how chil­dren process es­sen­tial nu­tri­ents de­liv­ered in the womb. Be­fore a child is born, his or her teeth grow new lay­ers each day, and the lay­ers record the el­e­ments wend­ing their way through the body, much like tree rings. Paul Curtin, who works in en­vi­ron­men­tal medicine, and his team sus­pected the lay­ers could re­veal whether kids on the autism spec­trum me­tab­o­lize chem­i­cals dif­fer­ently.

The re­searchers col­lected teeth from kids with and with­out ASD, used lasers to iso­late sin­gle lay­ers and ex­am­ined the lev­els of cop­per and zinc dur­ing the sec­ond and third trimesters. “When me­tab­o­lism of zinc and cop­per is dys­reg­u­lated,” ex­plains Curtin, “it can lead to dis­ease.”

Ac­cord­ing to their re­port, pub­lished in May in Sci­ence Ad­vances, chil­dren with autism pro­cessed the two met­als very dif­fer­ently. Just by look­ing at how they were me­tab­o­lized, the re­searchers could pre­dict which teeth be­longed to chil­dren with ASD. They could even spot the dif­fer­ence be­tween autis­tic and nonautis­tic sib­lings.

Ex­actly why chil­dren with ASD me­tab­o­lize zinc and cop­per ab­nor­mally is un­known. “That’s the fo­cus of fu­ture work,” says Curtin. But the re­searchers hope that the find­ing could lead to a new di­ag­nos­tic tool, one that could iden­tify autis­tic chil­dren at a younger age than is now pos­si­ble. “One chal­lenge is that we haven’t had any bi­o­log­i­cal mark­ers of autism,” says Curtin, re­fer­ring to cur­rent tests, which fo­cus on be­hav­ior and cog­ni­tion, pro­duc­ing vague re­sults that are sub­ject to in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Tis­sue for zinc and cop­per me­tab­o­lism would pro­vide a more ob­jec­tive mea­sure.

Curtin stresses that th­ese re­sults do not ex­plain the cause of autism or the re­cent in­crease in the num­ber of chil­dren on the spec­trum. But it’s an ex­cel­lent open­ing clue.

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