Tuesday, March 15, 2011

FOCUS: Autism Speaks Research Focuses on Brain Pathways and Possible Medicines

When I read the headline New Hope in Autism Fight, an article in the Wall Street Journal by reporter Melanie Grayce West, my first thought was Yeah Sure, Another Ill informed Feel Good Autism Puff Piece in the Mainstream Media.  My first response was wrong.  The article was brief and to the point and provided direct quotes from someone who knows what she is talking about when it comes to autism disorders, Dr. Geraldine Dawson. It set out succinctly  the very clear, and important, focus of Autism Speaks funded research ... research aimed at developing new methods of autism diagnosis and treatment. The comments  provide a rational and informed basis for the optimism expressed in the title. 

The article began by reporting another large contribution to Autism Speaks by Summer Redstone and outlined briefly some of his other generous contributions to medicine and health care. It included  a no nonsense realistic description by Dr. Dawson of autism disorders and the challenges they present to those who suffer from them.  Not a whiff of  feel good "autism is beautiful" stuff. It indicated  point blank that autism is increasing without any of the usual attempts to obscure the increase that often accompany reports of new increases in autism rates. What I found most interesting though was the concise and clear description of the focus of Autism Speaks research:

The core of the current research conducted by Autism Speaks focuses on translating the basic biology that researchers have learned about autism into new methods of diagnosis or treatment. The science suggests that even though autism has many different genetic and environmental causes, their effects may converge on a set of common pathways in the brain.

"For the first time we have the possibility of developing medicines that could help to restore the function of these pathways," says Dr. Dawson. Ultimately these medicines would help to reduce the core symptoms of autism.

In the next few years, the biggest challenge to researchers will be to develop medicines that would be useful for the broader, general population of people with autism.

"We are actually very hopeful at this point that we will be able to conduct clinical trials with people with autism in the upcoming few years," says Dr. Dawson. "That's never been done. We've never really been as hopeful as we are now."

I hope that Autism Speaks does not abandon any of its contributions to researching the causes of autism, particularly to the woefully underfunded environmental causes of autism, but I am very pleased with the efforts to find new treatments.  The goals of exploring the biological basis of autism disorders, the common pathways in the brain implicated in autism disorders, and Dr. Dawson's expression of optimism that medicines aimed at restoring the functions of those pathways will be developed in the upcoming years is clear, sensible and ... focused.  It is that focus which is so important and which I had begun to think was missing in Autism Speaks' activities.

Many parents hope for the development of treatments, of medicines, which will help their autistic loved ones but many of us grow skeptical, if not outright cynical, after seeing so many false starts and so much spin and hoopla over very little.  Dr. Dawson has stated that she and Autism Speaks are actually very hopeful for development of new medicines that will actually help the general population of persons with autism disorders and explained why they feel that way.  I believe she is speaking honestly and is in a position to know what she is talking about.

I am, once again, optimistic about Autism Speaks and the future of autism research.

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