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Autism: General Information


Autism is a lifelong disorder of extreme behvaviour caused by subtle changes in certain areas of the brain. Currently approximately 1 in 160 persons are diagnosed as autistic and the number is growing. The exact biological causes of autism and related developmental disorders are unknown, and will prove to be a major challenge to society. Despite the absence of any major brain malformations, studies have recently observed subtle changes in certain areas of the brain of autistic patients, including mild brain enlargement, which appear to occur during early brain development. Genetic factors, or exposure of the developing fetal brain to some environmental toxin or infection may be the cause of these abnormalities. The insult may also worsen throughout life, as the person is continually exposed to such evironmental factors, or amongst individuals with impaired ability to break down these toxins.

In the normal brain these areas, collectively known as the limbic system, are involved in such complex activities as finding meaning in sensory experience and perception, social behaviour, emotions and memory recall. The limbic system is also involved in the control of complex habitual movement, from learning to dress and wash to performing in a musical symphony. Limbic structures are thus involved in such diverse processes from artistic creativity, learning a skill, recognizing a person’s face, emotional bonding and the rearing of children, aggression and drug addiction. Thus abnormalities in these brain areas cut off or provide distorted impressions of reality for the person, leading to an inability to effectively relate to the world around them, retreating to a world of social isolation. Persons with autism are trapped in a world of ritualistic behaviour, with drastically impaired ability to interact with those around them. A select few show remarkable ability to perform certain skills, from playing a piano, or performing complex mathematical calculations, while at the same time cannot feed or dress themselves or colour within the lines. The lifelong impairment to the person with autism is enormous, The emotional tole to the family is devastating, the cost of public health care to care for these persons throughout life is immense.

The behavioural and biochemical aspects of autism resemble disorders such as schizophrenia, epilepsy and a number of rare pediatric neurological conditions. Disorders of brain chemistry, particularly involving the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which play a major role in limbic system function and movement, have been implicated. Linkages to a number of genetic abnormalities responsible for brain development are under investigation. Recent discoveries suggest abnormalities in the digestive system, and studies have shown that some patient’s symptoms are worsened by certain dietary factors possibly resulting from alterations of bacterial populations in the in the digestive system. There are linkages to various inflammatory disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, and recent evidence of an ongoing inflammatory processes in the brain. This suggests alterations in the immune system or some ongoing environmental factors may contribute to autism as well. It appears that these biological compounds are, either directly or indirectly altering brain function at a variety of levels. However, a unifying hypothesis for this devastating disorder which considers all of these observations has not been found.

Autism is clearly a disorder of behaviour. Therefore the detailed analysis of complex movement, both in the human condition and in experimental animal models is absolutely essential. A number of compounds contained in the diet, metabolic bye-products of organisms found in the digestive system, and inflammatory compounds are known to have profound effects on brain development, limbic system function and ultimately behaviour. Dr. Derrick MacFabe, an M.D. neuroscientist from the University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, has recently brought together a multidisciplinary team comprised of both clinical and basic science experts to study autistic disorder at number of levels. Among these are University of Western Ontario Psychology Chair Dr. Kaus-Peter Ossenkopp, Dr. Elizabeth Hampson, Dr. Donald Peter Cain and Dr. Martin Kavaliers, behavioural neuroscientists specializing in the effects of a variety of compounds on brain development and complex behaviour. In addition to behaviour, basic science mechanisms examining brain development, inflammation and electrical activity is concurrently performed, using a number of established and novel rodent models for autism.

This major undertaking would have been impossible without initial support from a generous donation from “Good Life Fitness” CEO David Patchell Evans, himself the father of an autistic child, Kilee. The “Kilee Patchell-Evans” Autism Research Group is honoured to bear her name.