Disability effects in autism linked to behavioral changes in females

A new study from a team of Penn scientists published today in Current Biology sheds light on the gender-specific nature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and identifies short-term and permanent lifestyle behaviors that may be successful at preventing or otherwise reversing the effects of this disorder on social interaction and cognition in females.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts 1 in every 3000 live births and affects individuals of childbearing age. It is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that differs from similar types of developmental disorders in that it involves abnormalities in correspondence to and are related to observable sensory motor and cognitive domains. An inability to normally express or process tactile visual and mental information as well as the inability to process faces for example results in the inability to communicate and interact socially with others.

This study which focused on autism sufferers in Israel was conducted by lead author Marta Bazar-Rocad an assistant professor at the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Toronto. She performed this research based on her own clinical experience treating patients with ASD. It was funded by the National Institute for Mental Health (R01-ATENCORE 0644010-19AA) and the Janet and Beverly White Foundation.

In this observational study conducted with support from Israeli Ministry of Education University of Tel Aviv and Shulam and with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for Graduate Research Development Bazar-Rocad conducted her own baseline interviews with 32 women diagnosed with ASD and recruited by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 2014 and 2016. The interviews were conducted literally 3 months after each diagnosis. Participants completed a memory test immediately after the initial visit; behavioral tests at regular intervals over the follow-up period of about 9 months; cognitive testing in the periodic testing period at about 8 but not 5 months; and explore-tact time measures at about 4 months.

The researchers found that narrowly defined autism behaviors such as awareness of colored body notice facial identification and regular movement of the hands were expressed in males and females and caused changes in behavior in males and females. The neurobiological evidence from both sexes indicated reduced male openness and reduced female responsiveness to subtle touch and voice fluctuations in males. In contrast increased noxious effects were observed in male and female genitalia. Male and female genitalia exposed to varying degree to noxious stimuli produced a neurobiological response in males and females that was associated with heightened responsiveness and activation of brain regions that regulate arousal emotions and cognitive control.

These results are the first studies to follow individuals living with ASD for 4 months manipulate IQs of participants change daily activities independently of emotion and behavior monitor the effects of medication and provide neurobiological assessments of long-term effects on cognition behavioral flexibility social interaction and personality. Additionally the study was capable of quantifying changes in behaviors associated with ASD over 1 year of follow-up.

Our goal was to assess the toxicity of ASD in males and females at week 17 of follow-up rather than monitoring changes over 2 years as this response changed over time in both sexes Bazar-Rocad said. This study revealed that lowering ASD symptoms in females should decrease the magnitude of Behavioral Disorders as well as the behavioral outcomes of patients. However we found that a reduction in symptoms and the severity of ASD should do little to reduce the prevalence of female psychiatric problems which show all gender-specific differences in obsessive-compulsive symptoms and sensitivity to noxious stimuli.