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Singapore researchers may have identified root cause of autism!

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Singapore scientists just got one step closer to identifying the root cause of autism. What have they discovered?

Singapore researchers have made a significant breakthrough. They have identified a gene that could play an important role in causing autism.

Gene mutation responsible for autism

According to The Straits Times, the Duke-NUS team has made an important discovery. They have figured out that mutations of the gene, CDH13, caused the brain's circuitry and mode of communication to function differently from normal. What's more, autistic people were also found to have mutations of this gene.

This discovery will hopefully help in identifying and treating autism spectrum disorder (ASD) earlier on in life. According to Professor Steve Rozen, director of the Duke-NUS Medical School's Centre for Computational Biology, "We have found that CDH13 has a strong effect in causing ASD, and so we can use mouse experiments to test therapies."

What is autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a broad term for disorders such as autism and Asperger syndrome. These disorders are characterised usually by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviours.

ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art.

The most obvious signs and symptoms of autism tend to emerge between 2 to 3 years of age. The exact reasons for autism remain largely unknown.

Autism in Singapore

The rise of autism among Singapore children is worrying. Apparently, 1 in 150 children here are on the spectrum, even higher than the World Health Organisation's global figure of 1 in 160 children.

What is even more puzzling is that more pre-schoolers in Singapore are being diagnosed with developmental issues such as autism, speech and language delays and behavioural issues. The number of such cases has jumped from 2,500 in year 2010, to 4,400 in year 2014. Perhaps, the jump can be attributed to rising awareness of this disorder.

Apparently, two drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration are currently used to treat the symptoms of autism, but none for the condition itself. Behavioural therapy may also be considered to treat the symptoms.

The Straits Times quotes Dr Kenneth Lyen, consultant paediatrician at Mount Elizabeth Hospital and founder of Rainbow Centre as saying, "Children are generally diagnosed with ASD when they are two years old or older here. With genetic breakthroughs, they may be diagnosed earlier and get treated earlier."

Autism App

There is more good news for parents. If things go well, an autism app could be available in Singapore soon. A working prototype of the app is currently available in the US iTunes store.

The app can be used with a child sitting on a parent's lap. A camera captures the child's behaviour and expressions when certain videos are played. Computer vision algorithms will then analyse the data collected and advise the parent if the child is at risk of autism.

The app might be a low cost alternative for parents to assess whether their child needs a doctor's consultation.

Professor Geraldine Dawson says,"This could be a low-cost, scalable screening tool for autism and other neurodevelopment disorders in early childhood." She is the director of the Duke Centre for Autism and Brain Development at Duke University in the United States, and president of the International Society for Autism Research.

(Source: The Straits Times)

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