Saturday, 24 June 2017

Autism awareness among the young is actually quite good

The message of 'increasing awareness of autism' is still a strong one in modern times despite the label of autism officially entering medical texts some 80+ years ago. We have a World Autism Awareness Week and a World Autism Awareness Day and lots more in-between to raise awareness of autism and what the label [differentially] means to many, many people.

The findings reported by Karola Dillenburger and colleagues [1] seem to suggest that, particularly among children and young adults, the autism awareness message is getting through as they observed: "Children and young people have good levels of awareness and knowledge about autism and reported positive attitudes towards peers with autism." Even further: "A higher than expected number of children and young people self-reported being on the autism spectrum."

Based on analysis of "two large-scale surveys: the Kids Life and Times survey for 11-year olds and the Young Life and Times survey for 16-year olds" yielding some 3300 children and young adults, researchers posed various questions including those pertinent to autism awareness. The results suggested that some 80% of teenagers had some knowledge about autism compared with about 50% of younger children. Most participants held positive attitudes towards autism including recognition that bullying is an issue that some on the autism spectrum are particularly at risk of. Further: "Self-reported prevalence of autism was 3.1% for teenagers and 2.7% for the younger children." That last point was based on the study population being based in Northern Ireland (which interestingly, has recently reported a rather large upswing in the number of formally-diagnosed cases of autism too).

These are rather positive results insofar as the recognition of autism and indeed, how common it is in modern times. It is perhaps not unexpected that some of these authors have some research form in this area [2]. The authors frame the result in terms of boding well for "peer-mediated support strategies for inclusive education" but I think they go much further than that. Assuming that awareness covers the entire spectrum of autism (see here) and not just a part/branch of it, I'd like to think these findings go some way to supporting efforts to 'make autism more visible' and onward, ensuring that the wants and needs of those on the spectrum are more readily expressed and addressed. Media and culture probably has a lot to do with such findings (see here for example) but the fact that many classrooms and schools do now cater for students on the autism spectrum no doubt played an important role in these findings.

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[1] Dillenburger K. et al. Autism awareness in children and young people: surveys of two populations. J Intellect Disabil Res. 2017 Jun 7.

[2] Dillenburger K. et al. Creating an Inclusive Society… How Close are We in Relation to Autism Spectrum Disorder? A General Population Survey. J Appl Res Intellect Disabil. 2015 Jul;28(4):330-40.

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Friday, 23 June 2017

How helpful is a 'geek index'?

A quote to begin: "male offspring of older fathers had higher ‘geek index’ scores, a composite measure of high IQ, strong focus on the subject of interest and social aloofness."

So said the findings published by Magdelena Janecka and colleagues [1] (open-access) who set out to determine whether "having an older father is associated with certain beneficial traits" in offspring. Their use of the term 'geek index' (GI) was derived from a "composite measure of non-verbal intelligence, restrictive interests and reduced need to fit in with the peer group" based on data derived from the TEDS (Twin Early Development Study) initiative (something that has cropped up before on this blog). As one might imagine, use of the term 'geek index' in a science article was always likely to make some media headlines (see here for example).

In terms of study design and numbers, this was a biggie with study participants in the thousands. The geek index was derived from scores "of (i) non-verbal intelligence, (ii) restrictive and repetitive behaviours (RRBs) and (iii) social aloofness." Further: "Scores on the Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices test were used to obtain (i). Childhood Autism Spectrum Test (CAST) scores were used to obtain both (ii) and (iii)." Various statistical 'transformations' were conducted on said scores to give that geek index sum and, not forgetting the parental age bit, paternal age was also thrown into the statistical mix.

As per the opening sentence, those children born to older fathers (but not older mothers) seemed to more frequently present with a higher geek index. This association persisted after controlling for various potentially confounding variables: "maternal age, sex, zygosity and SES [socio-economic status]." Researchers further observed that: "GI was positively linked with future academic attainment—including the key predictors of future SES—suggesting a phenotypic advantage in the offspring of older fathers."

These are interesting results and notwithstanding some study limitations i.e. "It was not possible to determine whether the advantageous effects of GI extend beyond secondary education, and correlate with future SES" require further independent investigation. Offspring being born to older fathers has generally been associated with various less-than-positive outcomes so this article kinda paints a more positive picture for children and families. Indeed, one of the commentators talking about these findings suggests that "perhaps we are destined for future society of geniuses that are going to help us solve all the world's problems." One would hope so.

As per the title of this post, I would however question how useful/helpful the term 'geek index' is when it comes to outcomes and implications. Yes, I know there is such a thing as 'geek chic' these days, but let's not forget that the word 'geek' has it's primary origins as a term of ridicule in many languages. To quote one definition: "the word typically connotes an expert or enthusiast or a person obsessed with a hobby or intellectual pursuit, with a general pejorative meaning of a "peculiar person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual, unfashionable, or socially awkward."" I'm not so sure that every child (youngster or teenager) would be particularly happy to be labelled as scoring high on a geek index. Surely something a little more scientific could replace such a term?

Going also back to those study caveats provided by the authors, I might also raise the idea that just because someone shows an intellectual advantage when it comes to something like STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects does not necessarily mean that their future is going to be a rosy one in terms of employment, income or other markers of SES. “If you look at who does well in life right now, it’s geeks” is one of the quotes attributed to the first author of the paper; and with it as massive a sweeping generalisation as you will ever see.

If we for example, assume that strengths in STEM might be over-represented when it comes to the autism spectrum (see here) we should be seeing lots and lots of people either diagnosed with autism or possessing significant autistic traits thriving in such roles and in life in general. The reality however is that skills pertinent to STEM often do not appear in a vacuum (see here) as I would put forward the suggestion that future research might also consider the possibility of a relationship between the geek index (or other term) and the presentation of something like anxiety or depression and how that might also impact on later adult outcomes for example. The additional idea that social aloofness also makes up part of the geek index is something else that needs quite a lot more work on as part of any 'advantage' arguments being put forward...

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[1] Janecka M. et al. Advantageous developmental outcomes of advancing paternal age. Translational Psychiatry. 2017. 7; e1156.

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Thursday, 22 June 2017

Autism, learning disability and diagnostic substitution

The findings reported by Cynthia Nevison and Mark Blaxhill [1] represent the source blogging material today. Their quite detailed analysis of individual state data based on the "United States Individuals with Disabilities Education Act" (IDEA) is front and centre and what it might mean for the argument that the quite phenomenal rise in diagnoses of autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is due wholly or in part, to a switch from the diagnosis of intellectual (learning) disability to autism.

Based on examining IDEA data for each of the 50 states of the United States covering various years, various years of birth and various ages, authors concluded that sweeping generalisations about widespread diagnostic switching/substitution were not necessarily borne out in such State level data analysis. They did find that: "Nationwide ID [intellectual disability] prevalence declined steeply over the last two decades, but the decline was driven mainly by ~15 states accounting for only one-fourth of the U.S. school population." Further, when assigning specific statistical conditions to states based on things like the decrease in ID being comparable to the increase in autism diagnoses or the increase in autism diagnoses being substantially greater than the decrease in ID diagnoses, authors reported a complex picture generally pertinent to the idea that "ID prevalence stayed relatively constant while ASD prevalence rose sharply."

This is not the first time that some of these authors have used IDEA data to put forward a view that the increase in cases of autism is real and not just an artifact of changing diagnostic criteria for example (see here). Indeed, both authors have an interest in this area [2] and dedicated some peer-reviewed science time to it. Personally, I find this kind of detailed scrutiny to be refreshing in these days of sweeping generalisations and soundbites about many facets of autism. Indeed, as time goes on and the numbers of those being diagnosed with autism creep ever higher worldwide (see here), older arguments about diagnostic substitution have seemingly become less and less convincing. No, diagnosticians weren't that bad at diagnosing autism X number of years ago...

Having said that, I do still think there is a place for diagnostic substitution when it comes to explaining *some* of the increase in cases being diagnosed. Data such as that from King & Bearman [3] estimating that about a quarter of the increase in cases of autism in places such as California might be due to diagnostic switching from ID cannot simply be forgotten or brushed under the scientific carpet. I should also mention that autism can very well exist in the presence of ID too (see here); even more so in specific populations (see here).

I know that old battle lines about a real vs. artificial increase in cases of autism still persist in many circles and I understand some of the reasons why each side believe what they believe. What is however not in dispute, is the fact that there are quite massive numbers of people (children and adults) being diagnosed as on the autism spectrum year-on-year worldwide (with additional many unable to access timely and appropriate diagnostic services) and resources aplenty are required to identify their specific needs and provide accordingly. No easy task in these continuing days of austerity, cuts and the like...

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[1] Nevison CD. & Blaxill M. Diagnostic Substitution for Intellectual Disability: A Flawed Explanation for the Rise in Autism. J Autism Dev Disord. 2017 Jun 6.

[2] Blaxill MF. What's going on? The question of time trends in autism. Public Health Rep. 2004 Nov-Dec;119(6):536-51.

[3] King M. & Bearman P. Diagnostic change and the increased prevalence of autism. Int J Epidemiol. 2009 Oct;38(5):1224-34.

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Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Schizophrenia and CRP meta-analysed again

"Our study provides evidence that higher CRP [C-reactive protein] levels are associated with increased risk of SZ [schizophrenia], especially for young adult patients less than 30 years."

So said the results of the 'updated' meta-analysis by Zhichao Wang and colleagues [1] (open-access available here) surveying the peer-reviewed literature on this topic "from inception to November 1, 2016." The 'updated' bit to their discussion refers to the fact that this is not the first time that CRP - a molecule associated with inflammation or inflammatory processes - and schizophrenia have received the meta-analysis treatment (see here for example).

So, "18 studies representing 1963 patients with SZ and 3683 non-SZ controls" were identified and as per the opening sentence to this post, "blood CRP levels were moderately increased in people with SZ... irrespective of study region, sample size of included studies, patient mean age, age of SZ onset and patient body mass index."

The authors do mention the idea that elevated levels of CRP in cases of schizophrenia fits in with the idea that immune function might be doing so much more than just fighting off infection and the like (see here). Indeed, they talk about: "The rationale that plasma CRP levels were increased significantly in studies with participants’age less than 30 years probably lies in that in the early stages of SZ, a particularly large number of inflammatory substances will be secreted, such as blood CRP and interleukin-10, which are very likely to be related to the development of SZ" with the requirement for further investigations. They also talk about how "high peripheral levels of CRP could increase the permeability of the blood–brain barrier through the adjustment of the function of tight junctions, which contributed to the increase in some pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as CRP to enter the central nervous system." This is an idea that has found favour in other quarters too [2].

Armed with such data, one might envisage that further studies on the possibility of controlling CRP and other related compounds (see here) *could* represent one route to eventually treating at least some types of schizophrenia...

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[1] Wang Z. et al. Association between C-reactive protein and risk of schizophrenia: An updated meta-analysis. Oncotarget. 2017 May 18.

[2] Najjar S. et al. Neurovascular Unit Dysfunction and Blood-Brain Barrier Hyperpermeability Contribute to Schizophrenia Neurobiology: A Theoretical Integration of Clinical and Experimental Evidence. Front Psychiatry. 2017 May 23;8:83.

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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Oral vitamin D and the inflammatory effects of sunburn

In something of a departure from the typical content of this blog, I want to briefly introduce the paper by Jeffrey Scott and colleagues [1] and specifically the findings that: "Compared to placebo, participants receiving vitamin D3 (200,000 IU) demonstrated reduced expression of pro-inflammatory mediators TNF-α... and iNOS... in skin biopsy specimens 48 hours after experimental sunburn."

Based on a small number of participants who either received a high dose of vitamin D - "vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol)" - or a placebo one hour after experimental sunburn, authors describe how there seemed to be some merit in supplementing with vitamin D (oral dosage form) to help mitigate some of the more damaging, inflammatory effects of sunburn based on their observations. They further noted: "increased skin expression of the anti-inflammatory mediator arginase-1, and a sustained reduction in skin redness, correlating with significant expression of genes related to skin barrier repair" in their supplemented group.

It is perhaps timely that this research is discussed today given the current heatwave that has settled over most of Blighty. If like me, you are sometimes prone to the odd bout of sunburn (8 hours at Flamingo Land has quite a lot to answer for!) such findings could eventually prove to be quite useful. Obviously there is the strong advice not to get sunburn in the first place but added to the various creams and lotions to soothe the skin after sunburn, the possibility that vitamin D supplementation might also come in handy is worthwhile experimentally investigating further. The fact that vitamin D is produced in the skin (albeit in a quite complicated series of biological processes) suggests that Mother Nature knew what she was doing when it came to skin exposure to (excess) sunlight.

On one last point - that related to "the immunotherapeutic properties of vitamin D" - I'd also like to think that other areas of science and medicine could benefit from further research in this area. I've discussed research before on this blog talking about how vitamin D supplementation might be important to certain labels under certain conditions with an immune system/inflammatory component attached to them (see here). Assuming that what goes on in the skin under inflammatory conditions following sunburn is not necessarily a hundred million miles away from what happens to other parts of the body under similar inflammatory conditions, there is perhaps quite a bit we can learn from the sunshine vitamin/hormone and it's multi-faceted effects...

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[1] Scott JF. et al. Oral vitamin D rapidly attenuates inflammation from sunburn: an interventional study. J Invest Dermatol. 2017 May 30. pii: S0022-202X(17)31558-0.

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Monday, 19 June 2017

The ADOS-2, autism and "complex psychiatric conditions"

The findings reported by Brenna Maddox and colleagues [1] caught my eye recently and the specific finding that: "The ADOS-2 accurately identified all adults with ASD [autism spectrum disorder]; however, it also had a high rate of false positives among adults with psychosis."

ADOS-2 as in the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule mark 2, represents one of the premier gold-standard observational instruments for the assessment of autism or ASD. I've talked about ADOS quite a bit on this blog including the various efforts to further 'reduce down' this schedule and it's counterpart, the Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI) to speed up the diagnostic/assessment process for example (see here).

Drawing on data derived from "adults in community mental health centers (n = 75)" where ADOS-2 was delivered, researchers observed something of a recurrent theme in screening/assessment circles in that the instruments used to look for autistic traits might not necessarily just be picking up exclusively autistic traits (see here for another example). That and/or the idea that the presentation of autistic traits might not be just confined to autism; important in these days of realisation that autism rarely exists in some sort of diagnostic vacuum (see here).

There is an interesting note added to the Maddox paper insofar as their findings serving "as a reminder that social communication difficulties measured by the ADOS-2 are not specific to ASD, particularly in clinically complex settings." This is not necessarily a new finding [2] but does further stress the 'interconnections' between autism and other labels/diagnoses (see here) as once again, the important observations made by people such as Mildred Creak and colleagues [3] are forgotten/brushed under the carpet at our peril.

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[1] Maddox BB. et al. The Accuracy of the ADOS-2 in Identifying Autism among Adults with Complex Psychiatric Conditions. J Autism Dev Disorder. 2017. June 6.

[2] Morrison KE. et al. Distinct profiles of social skill in adults with autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. Autism Res. 2017 May;10(5):878-887.

[3] Evans B. How autism became autism: The radical transformation of a central concept of child development in Britain. History of the human sciences. 2013;26(3):3-31.

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Saturday, 17 June 2017

Vitamin D deficiency is rife in an in-patient psychiatric unit for young people

"Adolescents within tier 4 adolescent mental health services may be at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency and so assessment of vitamin D levels should be considered as part of a standard physical health review for this group of young people."

So said the results reported by Neil Stewart & Simon Lewis [1] (open-access) who surveyed blood test results of patients admitted to a tier 4 psychiatric unit for vitamin D levels. Such a study was conducted on the basis that "it is plausible that vitamin D and/or vitamin D deficiency have a role in the pathogenesis of mental illness." Yes, indeed I might agree (see here and see here for examples).

Authors identified some 27 individuals who were tested for vitamin D deficiency between 2012 and 2014 from a population of 56. Over 80% (22/27) had vitamin D levels falling into the deficient or severely deficient range, and none of them had vitamin D levels reaching the bottom end of the typical range (75–250 nmol/L). A few other points are worthwhile noting: "In individuals from BME [black and minority ethnic] groups, who were potentially at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency due to increased skin pigmentation, 52.9% (9/17) were tested for vitamin D levels and 100% were deficient or severely deficient."

I was rather happy to see that authors have very much stuck to their findings minus too much speculation about their meaning. They, for example, suggest that all patients entering their particular service should "be considered at high risk of vitamin D deficiency" for whatever reason(s). They emphasise that vitamin D testing should be part and parcel of the routine physical examination normally provided to patients. They even talk about correcting any deficiency/insufficiency whilst monitoring vitamin D levels for any adverse effects or toxicity. In short, treat the physical health of their patients/service users despite the focus of their service being psychiatric. Lessons I'm sure that could be applied to many different labels/diagnoses with a behavioural or psychiatric element to them.

Going back to the idea that vitamin D deficiency might play a role in various conditions/states outside of those linked to bone health, the authors add to other voices suggesting that more investigation is needed to confirm/refute links between vitamin D status and behavioural or psychiatric issues. They note: "If an association between depression and vitamin D deficiency were to be confirmed through future study, vitamin D supplementation could potentially be a cost-effective treatment adjunct with minimal adverse effects." Again, I can't argue with the logic.

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[1] Stewart NF. & Lewis SN. Vitamin D deficiency in adolescents in a tier 4 psychiatric unit. BJPsych Bull. 2017 Jun;41(3):133-136.

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