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What Hope Does Research Offer?
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Research continues to reveal how the brain-the control center for thought, language, feelings, and behavior-carries out its functions. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) funds scientists at centers across the Nation who are exploring how the brain develops, transmits its signals, integrates input from the senses, and translates all this into thoughts and behavior. In recognition of growing scientific gains in brain research, the President and Congress have officially designated the 1990s as the "Decade of the Brain."
There are new research initiatives at NIH sponsored by NIMH, NICHD, NINDS, and NIDCD. As a result, today as never before, investigators from various scientific disciplines are joining forces to unlock the mysteries of the brain. Perspective gained from research into the genetic, biochemical, physiological, and psychological aspects of autism may provide a more complete view of the disorder.
Every day, NIH-sponsored researchers are learning more about how the brain develops normally and what can go wrong in the process. Already, for example, scientists have discovered evidence suggesting that in autism, brain development slows at some point before week 30 of pregnancy.
Scientists now also have tools and techniques that allow them to examine the brain in ways that were unthought of just a few years ago. New imaging techniques that show the living brain in action permit scientists to observe with surprising clarity how the brain changes as an individual performs mental tasks, moves, or speaks. Such techniques open windows to the brain, allowing scientists to learn which brain regions are engaged in particular tasks.
In addition, recent scientific advances are permitting scientists to break new ground in researching the role of heredity in autism. Using sophisticated statistical methods along with gene splicing-a technique that enables scientists to manipulate the microscopic bits of genetic code-investigators sponsored by NIH and other institutions are searching for abnormal genes that may be involved in autism. The ability to identify irregular genes-or the factors that make a gene unstable-may lead to earlier diagnoses. Meanwhile, scientists are working to determine if there is a genetic link between autism and other brain disorders commonly associated with it, such as Tourette Disorder and Tuberous Sclerosis. New insights into the genetic transmission of these disorders, along with newly gained knowledge of normal and abnormal brain development should provide important clues to the causes of autism.
A key to developing our understanding of the human brain is research involving animals. Like humans, other primates, such as chimpanzees, apes, and monkeys, have emotions, form attachments, and develop higher-level thought processes. For this reason, studies of their brain functions and behavior shed light on human development. Animal studies have proven invaluable in learning how disruptions to the developing brain affect behavior, sensory perceptions, and mental development and have led to a better understanding of autism.
Ultimately, the results of NIMH's extensive research program may translate into better lives for people with autism. As we get closer to understanding the brain, we approach a day when we may be able to diagnose very young children and provide effective autism treatments earlier in the child's development. As data accumulate on the brain chemicals involved in autism, we get closer to developing medications that reduce or reverse imbalances.
Someday, we may even have the ability to prevent the disorder. Perhaps
researchers will learn to identify children at risk for autism at birth,
allowing doctors and other health care professionals to provide preventive
therapy before autism symptoms ever develop. Or, as scientists learn more about
the genetic transmission of autism, they may be able to replace any
defective genes before the infant is even born.
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