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News Round-Up: Autism Bill, New Research, and Google Glass

Although we’re only two-and-a-half months deep into 2015, each week seems to bring forth some incredible new insight into possible causes and cures for autism or advancement for individuals who are living with autism. This past week brought us so much varied news, we decided to group it all together to keep you up to date on the most recent and relevant news on autism and society.

Firstly, in looking at the most up-to-date research and discoveries, two recent studies have shed great insight into both treating and better understanding those with ASD. Firstly, in looking at recent genetic research, a study conducted in England and Wales further pushed forward the thesis that genetics might play the biggest role in causing autism.

In a study quite similar to one we covered a couple of weeks back, researchers looked at all twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1996 and discovered that autism is rooted in genetics 74 to 98 percent of the time. According to Beata Tick of King’s College London, who was the lead author of the study, “Our main finding was that the heritability of ASD was high. These results further demonstrate the importance of genetic effects on ASD, despite the dramatic increase in prevalence of the disorder over the last 20 years.”

By looking at over 6,000 pairs of twins that split the difference between identical and fraternal, researchers found that if one twin had autism, the risk that the other would be on the spectrum was significantly higher in identical twins who share DNA.

In other research news, scientists have achieved a greater understanding of the brain’s cerebellum, which in turn could lead to new treatments for people with problems caused by autism, strokes, and schizophrenia. According to Jeremy Schmahmann, growing evidence indicates that symptoms ranging from difficulty with abstract thinking to psychosis, all have links to the cerebellum, which in turn has a whole new slate of functions that researchers were previously unaware of.

While in the past, scientists have largely believed that the cerebellum’s role was limited to balance and coordination, that definition has rapidly expanded as evidence indicated that it also plays a role in cognition and emotions. What scientists are now learning about the cerebellum could play a huge role in helping people with brain disorders, especially as growing evidence points to the cerebellum being involved in the development of autism.

In legislative news, Mississippi appears poised to join a growing number of states that require health insurance plans to cover autism diagnosis and treatment as the state legislature recently sent House Bill 885 to Republican governor Phil Bryant, who is expected to sign the measure. As the average policy holder will experience a 32-cent increase in health costs due to autism, this bill will help many families to provide their children with the treatment and support they need, support that was previously not covered by the majority of insurance plans.

Finally, Ned Sahin, an entrepreneur based in Cambridge, recently founded BrainPower, which is a startup that looks to use Google Glass to teach children with autism how to better engage and socialize with people. As such, the company is developing applications that display images of popular cartoon characters to a child when an adult is talking to her or him with the intention of drawing children’s attention to faces. As Sahin put it, “We are designing tools to coach children…to make eye contact, increase connection to those around them, and unleash the potential of the brain.”

As exciting of a week as it has been, with the way this year has been going, it looks like the coming months only hold greater promise for advancement in autism treatments and research.