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Local Researchers Work on Autism Therapies

May 30, 2006
By Denise Dador

Local Researchers Work on Autism TherapiesBy Denise Dador
May 30, 2006 - When Eva Woodsmall looks at her 6 year old son Andrew, he doesn't always look back. Getting him to respond to anything is a battle. And when his mom smiles and laughs, Andrew rarely joins in.

Doctors diagnosed Andrew with autism at age two. His therapy schedule is up to 40 hours a week. His mom hopes to help him re-train his brain to experience a key emotion many kids with autism lack, empathy.
"I just think they're sort of trapped inside and it's the early intervention that focuses on bringing those abilities out," Woodsmall said.

UCLA neuro-researcher Marco Iacoboni says Eva may be on to something. He and his colleagues studied the brains of autistic versus typical children. They discovered a key difference in a part of the brain that creates something called mirror neurons.

"We found that typical developing kids activate these cells but our autistic kids did not activate these cells," Iacoboni said.

He says mirror neurons activate when children mirror or imitate the actions of others, like when a child smiles back at his mom.

"If you're an autistic kid or you are going to be an autistic kid and you can't look at your mom, you can't create these mirror cells," Iacoboni said.

It's a simple mechanism the brain uses to understand the emotions of others or empathize. Without this ability, social behavior becomes impaired.

But Iacoboni believes an autistic child's brain can be trained to create more mirror neurons.

"We think that imitation is a fundamental way in which you can train and exercise these cells in your own brain. This suggests that if you do imitation based treatments with the kids you may improve the capacity of these kids to become more empathic," Iacoboni said.

Therapy is helping Andrew become more responsive and Eva hopes in time Andrew will learn to empathize.

"I think the goal for any parent is to try to have a child who is an independent adult because I know what I do now is going to effect what happens in the future," Woodsmall said.

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