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Sep 16, 2022 3:00 PM

aging autistic man
University of Utah Health scientists are part of a multidisciplinary team that will study how aging differs in people with autism. Photo credit: Getty Images

Adapted from a University of Wisconsin press release

A new, landmark longitudinal study of aging and autism will delve into how differences in aging may impact the health outcomes of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The study, led by a team of scientists at University of Utah Health and the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, seeks to expand on recent research suggesting that older adults with ASD may have shorter life expectancies and more physical and mental health difficulties than the general population.

 The 5-year, $10 million study is part of a $100 million National Institutes of Health award to support autism spectrum disorder research at nine Autism Centers of Excellence.

 “Through this study we will begin to disentangle what aspects of aging may be different or even unique to ASD,” says Brandon Zielinski, M.D., Ph.D, chief of pediatric neurology at the University of Florida College of Medicine and adjunct professor at the University of Utah, who is leading his former team of researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine. “We’re trying to find the needles in the haystack that might distinguish aging in typical individuals from those living with ASD, to optimize their long-term health as they age.”

Aging and early mortality in autistic people are both complex and urgent issues that the field needs to address, according to the researchers. They hope their findings may help improve the long-term health outcomes of autistic adults. The team also hopes the study will provide insight into mechanisms underlying early and/or accelerated aging in autistic people.

We’re trying to find the needles in the haystack that might distinguish aging in typical individuals from those living with ASD.”

“In addition to tracking normal age-related brain changes, this study will allow us to shed light on the brain mechanisms responsible for the higher rates of neurodegenerative disorders diagnosed in ASD, says Jace King, Ph.D, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences and the director of the Brain Network Lab at the University of Utah.

Having a multidisciplinary team of experts in a broad range of fields from different institutions is important to address the complex and multifaceted nature of aging and autism. The research team will collect information about physical and mental health, lifestyle, cognitive ability, and brain structure and function in adults with and without autism.

“Some adults with ASD are healthy. The goal of the research is to understand resilience as well as aging-related changes to improve the long-term health of autistic adults,”  says  Janet Lainhart, M.D., lead principal investigator and psychiatrist and professor in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

The study will be one of the largest prospective longitudinal cohort studies of autistic adults to date. The researchers will establish a diverse cohort of autistic male and female adults and age- and sex- matched non-autistic adults 20-to-65 years and older, and follow them at two-to-three-year intervals over the five-year period of the grant and beyond.

This project builds upon data from the Interdisciplinary Science to Learn about Autism (ISLA-A) longitudinal study of autism from childhood to adulthood, an NIH funded project that studied how clinical characteristics and brain images changed over time in autistic individuals compared to individuals with neurotypical development.

ISLA-A has been following a cohort of autistic individuals for approximately 17 years, many of whom started as kids and are now adults. Results from this study may identify candidate factors that are predictive to autism aging outcomes and will guide the development of interventions and services to improve such outcomes.

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The study, called Toward Healthy Aging in Adults with Autism: A Longitudinal Clinical and Multimodal Brain Imaging Study, is a collaboration among Waisman Center investigators Alexander,  Janet Lainhart, MD, lead principal investigator and psychiatrist and professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health, Lauren Bishop, PhD, associate professor, Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work, and Douglas Dean, PhD, assistant professor, pediatrics and medical physics.

They are partnering with Brandon Zielinski, MD, PhD, co-PI, chief of pediatric neurology at the University of Florida College of Medicine and adjunct professor at the University of Utah, who is leading a team of researchers at the University of Utah in the department of Radiology that includes Jace King, Ph.D., assistant professor,  Molly Prigge, Ph.D., research associate, June Taylor, Ph.D., research associate professor, Lubdha Shah, MD, professor, Jubel Morgan, R.N. and Carolyn King, CCRP. Kevin Duff, Ph.D., a U of U Health clinical neuropsychologist is also participating in this study.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01MH132218. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. By: Charlene N. Rivera-Bonet

Written by Charlene N. Rivera-Bonet

Research News
Autism
Aging
Radiology
Neuropsychology



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