Reseachers identify new biomarker for autism
A study led by researchers at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, New York, reveals interesting findings about autism. According to recent research, there appears to be a link between the disease and a specific protein involved in normal growth and development, called insulin-like growth factor (IGF). This protein could serve as a marker of disease in the future, as it has been discovered that low levels predict autism onset in children.
Autism is a neuropsychiatric disorder that appears early in life and is characterized by isolation and social impairment. Autism is part of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), along with Asperger syndrome, characterized by cognitive and language deficit, and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (commonly abbreviated as PDD-NOS). Autistic children begin to talk later and have a particular behaviour, that is they avoid social contact, make repetitive movements, adopt specific rituals etc. Autism can be associated with mental retardation, but there are children who have IQ above average and have special skills in other areas such as drawing, music, mathematics.
In the United States, it is estimated that autism affects 1 in 88 infants, and the disorder is 4 times more common in boys than in girls. It is not clear what causes autism but apparently it is the result of interaction between genetic and environmental factors (infection of the mother during pregnancy, stress, etc.). Recovering a child with autism requires a multidisciplinary team and the costs are enormous.
In research done so far, Touro researcher Gary Steinman, MD, PhD, highlights the role of IGF in the pathogenesis of autism and believes that this protein is a marker that can predict autism onset. IGF is a protein that plays a role in stimulating certain brain cells to produce myelin, an insulating material that is essential for normal functioning of nerves. Without myelin, nerves would not be able to perform normal functions, such as controlling motor functions, like movement, or cognitive functions such as thinking, emotions etc. It seems that in the brains of patients with autism IGF is in insufficient quantities, which affects normal development.
Steinmen plans to investigate whether the low level of IGF is indeed associated with autism. The study would consist in collecting umbilical cord blood immediately after birth and measuring IGF levels. If the hypothesis proves true, then the next step would be to identify IGF levels in amniotic fluid in the second trimester of pregnancy and supplementation of the growth factor before the onset of autism.