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Insight Into Autism: The Latest Brain Research


(Autism)

The Centers for Disease Control recently announced that overall autism prevalence rates in the U.S. have increased, indicating that one in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum (an estimated one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls). Millions of Americans of all ages currently fall within the autism spectrum.


The Centers for Disease Control recently announced that overall autism prevalence rates in the U.S. have increased, indicating that one in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum (an estimated one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls). Millions of Americans of all ages currently fall within the autism spectrum.


Most people know something about autism, yet few recognize it as a social cognition disorder. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) impacts communication, social interaction and learning. Unlike a broken leg, for example, a brain disorder such as autism, cannot be seen, except through behavior considered "abnormal" or "different."


April is National Autism Awareness Month, a good time to put to rest some of the misconceptions about autism and to highlight exciting new brain research that will help more individuals with autism achieve productive life success.


As the fastest growing developmental disability with an annual growth rate of 10-17 percent, symptoms of autism differ from individual to individual. Some are only mildly affected and perhaps highly intelligent. They may have trouble making friends but function well in most, if not all, academic areas. Those more severely affected may not even be able to engage in meaningful give and take of communication, while still others may exhibit isolating behaviors or uncontrollable emotional outbursts, acting out in frustration.


No matter where individuals fall on the autism spectrum, those diagnosed often struggle to succeed in a world based on human interdependence. Individuals diagnosed with autism often have impaired social cognition or difficulty observing social rules, participating in social routines, or understanding and expressing emotions. For parents, this can be heartbreaking, as they wonder whether their child will be able to finish school; teens with autism yearn for friendships and romantic relationships, and adults with autism desperately want to be successful in holding down a meaningful job.


Autism may be compared to dyslexia, where the different types of reading problems in dyslexia are due to different regions of the brain not working properly. In autism, for example, networks in the brain allowing one to understand and express normal emotions may be poorly wired. To believe that individuals with autism do not need or want friends is to suggest that people with dyslexia do not want to read. They want it desperately. Individuals with autism long to belong.


Fortunately, research at the Center for BrainHealth is providing new insight into autism spectrum disorders and ways to train individuals with the diagnosis reach their fuller potential. We know certain areas of the brain are used to navigate through dynamic social interactions. We can actually see the differences in the brains of people with autism through advanced brain imaging. And we have learned that through short-term, intensive stimulation, we can "re-wire" the brain to some degree, improve the emotional awareness in individuals with high functioning autism and help them connect with others.


One of our most exciting projects uses a unique virtual reality intervention that maps and tracks facial expressions during interactions. We have hired experts in gaming technology to create a digital environment that simulates a variety of scenarios and social interactions that happen in daily life; the computer program employs dynamic technology as well as visual and auditory feedback to enhance the brain's response.


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Our scientific team is partnering with researchers at Yale's Child Study Center to test the feasibility of providing the research-based training program to young adults across the country. A person with autism can use the technology to "practice" and hone their skills initiating a conversation with a person they would like to meet, interviewing for a job, or standing up for themselves by confronting a friend or colleague. Practicing social interaction in a safe, non-threatening, gaming environment helps people reduce anxiety and gain the confidence and skills they need to attempt more social interactions in their daily lives.


Participants are experiencing great results with this intervention. As one young woman put it, "It feels real. I knew it was an alternate reality, but I felt the same emotions I would feel in the actual situation I was practicing." She says she has, "now made real friends, long-lasting friends" and that the program showed her the significance of friendship.


Autism is a very difficult diagnosis, because it affects areas of the brain governing social interactions and relationships, the very foundation of family and community life. But those with the diagnosis need not feel hopeless or believe isolation is their only future. Research to enhance social cognition in autism are showing great promise, and interventions are bringing new hope for better, more connected lives for these individuals.


Copyright Sandra Bond Chapman


Unlock Brain Potential to Protect Against Decline


(Enrichment)

Our brain is probably the most neglected, abused and poorly understood organ in the body. While sports concussions and Alzheimer's awareness are at an all-time high, many of us fail to protect our brain from potentially reversible decline.


Our brain is probably the most neglected, abused and poorly understood organ in the body. While sports concussions and Alzheimer's awareness are at an all-time high, many of us fail to protect our brain from potentially reversible decline.


The No. 1 cause of cognitive decline is not Alzheimer's, a condition 13 percent of us will develop, nor the millions of traumatic brain injuries reported each year. One of the leading causes of diminishing cognitive capacity is healthy people letting their brain lose ground.


Fortunately, it does not have to be that way. There are a number of actions people can take to maintain and support life-long cognitive capacity in the absence of disease.


Research shows that the brain is inherently changeable throughout life. Just as lifestyle interventions can spur weight loss and decrease bad cholesterol, we now know that implementing healthy brain habits can improve neuron nourishing brain blood flow and strengthen weakened connections between brain regions producing positive cognitive change.


While our ability to improve brain health is becoming more widespread in the neuroscience community, the general public is still largely unaware of pivotal steps that can be taken to make the brain more resilient to decline or injury and regenerate after cognitive losses.


We want that to inspire individuals to "change their mind" through healthy thinking habits. That is why the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas team is eager to announce that we have broken new ground on our Brain Performance Institute, the first facility of its kind dedicated to translating and implementing scientifically validated findings about brain health discoveries into practice. The building will not be an acute treatment facility, but a place where people can go to enhance brain performance.


Chancellor William H. McRaven of the University of Texas System best posed the question our research seeks to answer during our momentous groundbreaking ceremony last week. "How can we as individuals, as a state, as a society learn to think better and in thinking better become happier, more productive, more competitive and ultimately more successful?"


"Right here in Dallas, I believe we are on the cusp of the next great revolution, a revolution in brain health. My hope and my belief is that 40 years from now we will have made improvements in brain health of the same order of magnitude that we made in physical fitness," McRaven said.


"In 1968, the year that Dr. [Kenneth] Cooper published his best seller Aerobics, only 100,000 people in America were jogging, only 100,000. Now there are more than 30 million Americans who run for fitness and good health. The physical fitness revolution changed the way America thought about exercise. As a society we now understand the link between cardiovascular fitness and health," he explained. "We're going to know a lot more about how to take care of our brains. We are going to need it, because thanks in part to the physical fitness revolution, people are living longer. To make the most of the years we have, we need to make sure that brain fitness catches up with physical fitness. And I'm convinced it's going to happen and I am here to state in no uncertain terms that The University of Texas System intends to lead this new revolution to benefit our state, our country and the world."


Randomized clinical trials have shown this training yields significant benefits, including:


• As much as a 25 percent increase in reasoning among middle school students in poverty.


• An 18 percent improvement in increased memory for facts for middle school students, regardless of socioeconomic status.


• Up to a 12 percent increase in brain blood flow, which is a promising metric of brain health fitness.


• Up to a 60 percent decrease in depressive symptoms in individuals who have experienced a traumatic brain injury.


That success is just the beginning. We are continuing our research with an eye toward increasing brain plasticity using directed cortical stimulation or drug agents combined with cognitive reasoning training. Our work to improve brain health fitness for all never stops.


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Historically it can take at least 20 to 40 years before scientific exploration and discoveries trickle down to applications and medical practices that improve people's lives.


We think that is not fast enough.


Twenty years is too long for senior citizens or for those struggling to maintain brain function in the earliest stages of Alzheimer's. It is too long for our military service members trying to re-integrate into society after suffering a traumatic brain injury and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. And it is too long for teens who are having trouble in school and need to be equipped with the innovative learning skills to solve the complexity of the world's problems tomorrow.


Our goal for the new Brain Performance Institute is to transform the way we take action toward advancing the health of our most valuable organ. Our goal is to hasten the day all Americans have access to the information, techniques and treatments they need to harness the tremendous potential of their own brains. A rich potential that we have not even begun to tap.


Restrictions in schools needed to minimise risk of infection


(Schooling)

Mr Jotdeep Singh suggested relooking the many restrictions in schools as they reopen next month amid the coronavirus situation (Reconsider whether so many restrictions are needed in schools, May 21).


Mr Jotdeep Singh suggested relooking the many restrictions in schools as they reopen next month amid the coronavirus situation (Reconsider whether so many restrictions are needed in schools, May 21).


I do not think it is sensible for the Government to cut back on these control measures in schools.


They are meant to minimise the risk of students being infected by the coronavirus.


Schools should be safe places for children to learn and play.


If just one student is infected with the coronavirus, it could spread very quickly to his classmates as most lessons are conducted indoors.


We do not want schools to be evolving clusters for the virus like what has happened at foreign workers' dormitories, nor do we want a second wave of infections or schools closing again for home-based learning.


I applaud the Government for having most students alternate weekly between home-based learning and classes in school when schools reopen.


This reduces the number of students in school at any one time and hence also the risk of infection.


We do not want the circuit breaker to be extended because of any coronavirus case in schools.


It is better to be safe than sorry.


Khoo Zong Zhe
Strait Times


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