Thursday, November 28, 2013

Genetic discovery could increase understanding of ADHD

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin have discovered that a mutation in a single gene involved in the functioning of the brain's nervous system can lead to hyperactivity symptoms that are characteristic of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Getting the nervous system wired up properly is a big job. The brain contains billions of different types of nerve cells, which all have to be connected in a very precise fashion.

This circuitry self-assembles as an embryo grows, based on a developmental programme involving the actions of thousands of different genes.

The scientists discovered that a mutation in a single mouse gene, 'Elfn1', can have a big effect.

Their new findings give impetus to discover whether mutations in Elfn1 in humans can give rise to similar symptoms and whether they might play a part in some patients with epilepsy and ADHD.

These two conditions occur together far more often than expected by chance.

In an article just published in the international journal, PLOS ONE, Associate Professor in Genetics at Trinity, Kevin Mitchell, and Research Technical Officer, Dr Jackie Dolan, investigated the importance of the function played by Elfn1 and the protein it produces when expressed.

They did this by experimentally removing it from some mice and comparing the effects against those seen in mice with the normal gene.

Although overall brain anatomy and patterns of connectivity remained normal, there was clear evidence of disturbance in brain function in individuals without Elfn1.

Seizures occurred in some, and these became more common over time and were easily triggered by human interaction.

Secondly, hyperactivity was observed, and this showed an unusual response to the stimulant, amphetamine.

Amphetamine normally causes hyperactivity in animals that have Elfn1 present, as it does in most humans. Here, it reduced the hyperactivity of the mice without the gene.

This is similar to the situation in patients with ADHD, where amphetamine and related drugs have a paradoxical, calming effect.

"These findings clearly show that removal of the Elfn1 gene affects brain circuits with multiple consequences for behaviour," said Dr Dolan.

The seizures likely relate to the function of Elfn1 in dampening the response of the nervous system to strong stimuli in key brain structures called the cortex and hippocampus.

However, the development of ADHD-like hyperactivity focused on a different brain structure, known as the habenula.

This structure is part of a system that integrates information from multiple regions of the brain and regulates the activity of nerve cells that produce mood-regulating chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin.

Professor Mitchell said: "We are at the beginning of this process of figuring out how this gene works and understanding the consequences when it is mutated but, these animals provide a unique model to investigate how subtle changes in brain development can ultimately result in aberrant brain function".

Elfn1 was first discovered by Dr Dolan, Professor Mitchell and colleagues in 2007. The protein it produces when expressed allows communication from one nerve cell to another. In a study published in Science last year, Emily Sylwestrak and Anirvan Ghosh, of the University of California, San Diego, showed that the Elfn1 protein determined what kind of connection was made onto those nerve cells.

More information:

Can Toys help develop Science and Technology (STEM) skills in children?

One of the hot topics on social media this holiday season is finding gifts that can help children, especially girls, develop science- and engineering-related skills.

Beth Holloway, director of the Women in Engineering Program at Purdue University, says toys that help children figure out how to turn their ideas into reality - toys that let them design and build something, for instance - are a great first step in inspiring them to consider a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career.

"Toys like that will help children realize that they can make an impact on the world through their ideas," she says.

As for girls in particular, Holloway says they should have a range of toys and experiences.

"Parents need to provide girls with toys that indulge their feminine side but also those that allow them to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from designing and building something," she says.

"Those accomplishments will encourage them to continue to stretch their imaginations."

Holloway says research shows that girls tend to become interested in what they are confident that they are good at doing.

STEM-inspired toys can help foster that confidence in designing and building while reinforcing their existing interests.

For ideas on STEM-related toys, Holloway suggests the websites and

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FASD): Prenatal exposure to alcohol disrupts brain circuitry

Prenatal exposure to alcohol severely disrupts major features of brain development that potentially lead to increased anxiety and poor motor function, conditions typical in humans with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), according to neuroscientists at the University of California, Riverside.

In a groundbreaking study, the UC Riverside team discovered that prenatal exposure to alcohol significantly altered the expression of genes and the development of a network of connections in the neo-cortex—the part of the brain responsible for high-level thought and cognition, vision, hearing, touch, balance, motor skills, language, and emotion—in a mouse model of FASD.

Prenatal exposure caused wrong areas of the brain to be connected with each other, the researchers found.

These findings contradict the recently popular belief that consuming alcohol during pregnancy does no harm.

"If you consume alcohol when you are pregnant you can disrupt the development of your baby's brain," said Kelly Huffman, assistant professor of psychology at UC Riverside and lead author of the study that appears in the Nov. 27 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, the official, peer-reviewed publication of the Society of Neuroscience.

Study co-authors are UCR Ph.D. students Hani El Shawa and Charles Abbott.

"This research helps us understand how substances like alcohol impact brain development and change behavior," Huffman explained.

"It also shows how prenatal alcohol exposure generates dramatic change in the brain that leads to changes in behaviour.

Although this study uses a moderate- to high-dose model, others have shown that even small doses alter development of key receptors in the brain."

Researchers have long known that ethanol exposure from a mother's consumption of alcohol impacts brain and cognitive development in the child, but had not previously demonstrated a connection between that exposure and disruption of neural networks that potentially leads to changes in behaviour.

Huffman's team found dramatic changes in intra-neocortical connections between the frontal, somato-sensory and visual cortex in mice born to mothers who consumed ethanol during pregnancy.

The changes were especially severe in the frontal cortex, which regulates motor skill learning, decision-making, planning, judgment, attention, risk-taking, executive function and sociality.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Research Team first to Map Autism-Risk Genes by Function

Pity the poor autism researcher. Recent studies have linked hundreds of gene mutations scattered throughout the brain to increased autism risk. Where do you start?

UCLA neuroscientists may have an answer. They are the first to map groups of autism-risk genes by function, and to identify where and when these genes normally play major roles in early brain development.

In addition, they discovered disturbances in neural circuits that define key pathways between parts of the cerebral cortex.

The research suggests that these early disruptions are created by mutations in genes during fetal brain development and are not a result of autism itself.

Published in the Nov. 21 edition of Cell, the findings will help scientists understand how genetic changes cause autism on a molecular level and prioritize targets for future studies.

"Identifying gene variants that boost risk is only the first step of unraveling a disease," explained lead author Dr. Daniel Geschwind, the Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Distinguished Professor of Human Genetics, professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour.

"We need to figure out where genetic changes appear in the brain, at what stages during development and which biological processes they disrupt. Only then will we understand how mutations cause autism."

Using an online atlas called BrainSpan, the authors charted gene activity in the developing brain before birth.

In particular, they examined what happens during gene expression —when genes copy data from DNA to RNA in order to create proteins.

Geschwind and his colleagues found high activity in risk genes during two processes critical to early brain development.

"We found that gene variants are expressed in the developing brain when cells define their future identities and roles in neural circuits," first author Neelroop Parikshak, a graduate student researcher in Geschwind's lab.

"Therefore, changes in the genes influence the brain's wiring by altering the synapse and shaping how neurons transmit signals to each other."

The mutated genes also interfered with how the brain's layers and halves relate to one another, a phenomenon confirmed by previous imaging studies of the autistic brain.

"We discovered gene-related disruption of circuits that connect the autistic brain's layers and hemispheres to each other," explained Geschwind, who is director of the UCLA Neurogenetics Program and the Center for Autism Research and Treatment and co-director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Genetics at UCLA.

 "Our finding suggests that the mutated genes caused the miswiring; it's not a result of having the disease itself."

The UCLA team also demonstrated that while autism and intellectual disability share similar risk genes, the genes behave uniquely, showing for the first time how the two disorders differ.

"People often lump intellectual disability together with autism, because the disorders' risk genes overlap," said Parikshak.

"We showed that these genes have unique expression patterns in different brain regions at varying times during brain development.

"Genes linked to intellectual disability influence many biological processes in the body," he added. "But genes tied to autism tend to affect specific functions, such as the connections between brain regions that are essential to many human-specific behaviours, like speech and language."

The UCLA study will reap immediate benefits in the near future, when neuroscientists sequence the genomes of several thousand people for genetic mutations linked to autism and intellectual disability.

"We've made our analysis publically available to allow other researchers to expand upon our study and explore the data in detail," said Geschwind.

"We believe this will mark an important step forward in understanding the biology behind autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders."

Researchers explore links between learning disorders in children

New interdisciplinary research from Western University has uncovered fundamental links among three major learning difficulties in some school-age children.

Although many children have specific problems with dyslexia, specific language impairment and dyscalculia, this study is the first to show a significant portion of these children have overlapping deficits.

Importantly, the research team has also devised a 10-minute screening test that could be administered broadly in primary schools to identify children at risk for the different disorders.

The collaborative project includes findings from four researchers at Western's Brain and Mind Institute (BMI) and the Faculty of Health Sciences that independently specialize in the three key developmental disorders.

Dyslexia is a deficit in the development of reading while specific language impairment is a disorder related to poor development of spoken language skills. Dyscalculia is a severe difficulty in making mathematical calculations.

Past research in these disorders has focused on each of these as single impairments, despite the widespread recognition that they commonly overlap.

For a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, Lisa Archibald and Janis Oram Cardy from the Faculty of Health Sciences' School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Marc Joanisse and Daniel Ansari from BMI collaborated across disciplines and examined – for the first time ever – the co-occurrence of difficulties in reading, spoken language, and mathematical calculations in a large sample of school-age children.

In the study, researchers tested learning profiles of a large sample of school children aged 4 to 10-years old in the region of London, Ontario.

The research team found that although some of the children showed specific deficits in reading, spoken language, or math, a significant number of children exhibited a mixed profile of a reading plus a math deficit, or an even wider-ranging weakness spanning math, reading, and spoken language.

"This is the first time researchers have looked at possible learning difficulties in different areas in a large sample of the same kids," says Archibald, the PLOS One paper's lead author.

"It's an important first step in trying to understand the large variability that is commonly reported for groups with learning disabilities."

The study has also uncovered some essential hints as to why different learning patterns might occur in different children.

For instance, children who showed weaknesses on all three types of abilities also scored very low on a working memory assessment.

NB: Working memory is the ability to hold multiple pieces of information in mind and perform simple operations on them, such as repeating a sequence of digits in the reverse order in which they were presented. 

According to the findings, such children may require a more targeted approach to remediation, due to the complex nature of their difficulties.

Children who have more specific deficits did not show the same difficulty with working memory and would require quite different interventions.

"Educators face significant challenges in identifying learning problems in children. With additional testing, we hope that a new tool that we have developed will someday provide educators with a quick and effective method for identifying which children need extra help, but also a way to develop more individualized remediation programs," says Joanisse.

More information: Original Article: Archibald LMD, Oram Cardy J, Joanisse MF, Ansari D (2013) Language, Reading, and Math Learning Profiles in an Epidemiological Sample of School Age Children. PLoS ONE 8(10): e77463. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0077463

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Study links Synaesthesia to Autism

A condition where people experience a mixing of the senses, such as tasting words, has been linked with autism.

Research suggests synaesthesia is nearly three times as common in adults with autism spectrum disorder than in the general population.

The two conditions may share common features such as unusual wiring of the brain, say UK scientists.

The study helps understanding of how people with autism experience life, says the National Autistic Society.

Synaesthesia is a condition where one sense automatically triggers another. Some people experience tastes when they read or hear words, some perceive numbers as shapes, others see colours when they hear music.

People with synaesthesia might say: "The letter q is dark brown," or: "The word 'hello' tastes like coffee," for example. People with the condition [autism] can find everyday life confusing or even frightening so research like this, which helps us to understand more about how they experience the world, is valuable” 
Carol Povey, National Autistic Society

Following anecdotal evidence of links between synaesthesia and Asperger's syndrome, researchers at the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University set out to test the idea.

More than 200 study participants - 164 adults diagnosed with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome, and 97 adults without autism - were asked to fill in questionnaires to measure synaesthesia and autism traits.

The study found one in five adults with autism spectrum conditions - a range of related developmental disorders, including autism and Asperger's syndrome - had synaesthesia compared with about 7% of people with no signs of the disorders.

Prof Simon Baron-Cohen, who led the research, told reporters: "Synaesthesia involves a mixing of the senses and it's a very subjective private experience, so the only way we know it's happening is if you ask people to report on their experiences.

"And what this new study has done is ask people whether they experience synaesthesia, for example where a sound triggers the experience of colour or a taste triggers the experience of colour, and finding that these unusual experiences are actually much more common in autism than we previously knew."

The research, to be published in the journal Molecular Autism, suggests that while the two conditions might appear distinct, there could actually be some underlying similarities in brain connectivity.

More information: Is synaesthesia more common in autism? Authors: Simon Baron-Cohen, Donielle Johnson, Julian Asher, Sally Wheelwright, Simon E Fisher, Peter K Gregersen, Carrie Allison. In Molecular Autism (November 1st, 2013).

Monday, November 18, 2013

TV and video game distractions linked to sleep loss in boys with Autism (ADS/ADD)

Exposure to television and video games could play a role in the sleep problems of children with autism, new research suggests.

Boys with the neurodevelopmental disorder who have TVs and game consoles in their bedrooms get less sleep than other boys with equal screen access, the study authors found.

"If parents of children with autism are noticing that their child struggles with sleep, they might consider monitoring—and perhaps limiting—pre-bedtime exposure" to video games and TV, said study lead author Christopher Engelhardt, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Missouri Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Columbia, Mo.

It's not clear if the boys in the study get too little sleep, or if they're watching TV and playing video games because they have trouble sleeping.

The findings, reported online Nov. 18 in the journal Pediatrics, don't provide insight into whether the positive aspects of TV watching and video game playing might offset any effect on sleep.

It's estimated that 1 out of every 88 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Symptoms include problems with communication and socialization, and can range from mild, as in Asperger's syndrome, to severe autism. Boys face a much higher risk of autism than girls.

Certain Sleep problems appear to be a hallmark of autism.
"Some sleep problems, such as taking longer to fall asleep and waking up at night, occur in 50 percent to 80 percent of children with autism," Engelhardt said.

"The reasons for these problems are numerous, including trouble with sleep cycles and regulating hormones that are important and necessary for sleep."

Compared to typically developing children, children with autism also seem to be particularly drawn to TV and video games, Engelhardt pointed out.

"We suspect that this is the case, particularly with video games, because the environments, emotions and social interactions are much easier to control and interpret than in real life," he said.

For this study, the researchers wanted to explore the possible impact of TV-watching and gaming on the sleeping patterns of kids with autism.

They surveyed parents of 49 boys with an autism spectrum disorder, 38 with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and 41 who had neither disorder. The boys were between 8 and 17 years old.

When computers were in the bedroom, sleep differences were significant: about 7 hours for boys with autism compared to more than 8.5 hours for the others.

Boys with autism and a bedroom TV also got less sleep: fewer than 8 hours a night compared to about 8.5 hours for the other boys.

However, the parents weren't asked questions designed to determine if the kids weren't getting enough sleep. And the research doesn't prove that media use deprives these boys of sleep.

It's possible that boys with autism and easy access to TV and video games need less sleep, Engelhardt said. Or they might watch and play because they are awake more.

Still, it's known that sleep disturbances can worsen problematic behaviors of children with autism and interfere with learning and family functioning, the authors noted.

Sleep problems are "one of the top complaints in families who are dealing with autism," said Matthew Belmonte, a neuroscientist at Groden Center in Providence, R.I.

But parents, not professionals, are key to figuring out the proper role of TV and video games in a child's life, added Belmonte, who was not involved with the study.

"You don't need an M.D. or Ph.D. to tell you when a child is just relaxing with a video game or when it's keeping that child awake unnecessarily."

Engelhardt said he enjoys playing video games himself and isn't on a crusade against them. Video games and TV can benefit children with autism, he noted.

"Researchers have known for a long time that video games are excellent teachers, so it's possible that these media can be used to develop and shape the types of behaviours generally valued by society, such as behaviours intended to help and assist others," Engelhardt said.

It's even possible, he added, that relaxing video games and TV shows could help kids with autism sleep better.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Communicating Brains: From Autism and Dyslexia to Progressive Aphasia

Elysa Marco, Nina Dronkers and Maya Henry explore how brains communicate, and how that changes with autism, dyslexia and aphasia. 

Series: "UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine presents Mini Medical School for the Public" 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Children with Autism: New Study questions traditional 'top down' research

The paper describes that rather than a single entity, autism is multiple disorders. Credit: CampASCCA

Information from the families of 1200 children with autism will be collected from next month to begin the largest autism data study in Australia which includes a team of WA researchers.

Telethon Institute of Child Health Research's Andrew Whitehouse says the project involves several prominent research groups across the nation under the umbrella of the Autism Co-operative Research Centre for Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders which received $31 million over eight years from the Federal Government earlier this year.

Professor Whitehouse says the centre will further extensive work by Telethon including its recent "proof of principle" research which advocates a new approach to autism investigation and whose findings have been documented in the Frontiers of Human Science Journal.

Prof Whitehouse says rather than using the traditional "top-down" approach to investigate the causes of autism, it takes the other end of the "causal pathway," starting with the factors that may produce the disorder.

The paper describes that it is now widely accepted that rather than a single entity, autism is multiple disorders. The variability in the nature and severity of behaviours is thought to exceed that of any other.

"What researchers tend to do is look at behaviours, classify people based on that and then look for genetic or biochemical markers that might be associated with those behaviours," Prof Whitehouse says.

"What we're suggesting is going at it the other way; look at genetic or environmental factors that are known to be associated with autism and look at whether they are then associated with behaviours."

He says after 70 years, researchers are frustrated by not being able to find a clear causal pathway but the only way research can proceed is through large collaborations.

"One lab group alone is not going to be able to solve the riddle of autism—that's just not going to happen," he says.

"We need large numbers of participants who can do both the "top-down" and "bottom-up" approach and that's what we're proposing."

The recently published "bottom-up" study selected participants from the WA Autism Biological Registry to analyse two areas previously linked to ASD diagnoses; low birth weight and maternal use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) during pregnancy.

These are found in medications used to treat anxiety and major depression.

Prof Whitehouse says the study provides a blueprint for a "bottom-up" approach, which creates smaller homogenous sub-groups with the autism spectrum, compared with a costly top down approach which requires larges sample sizes.

More Information: 'A “bottom-up” approach to aetiological research in autism spectrum disorders' Lisa M. Unwin1, Murray T. Maybery, John A. Wray and Andrew J. O. Whitehouse.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Stepparents are not always evil: Parents' need a strategy to love their children

Contrary to common belief, parents do not generally treat their stepchildren less favourably than their own. Until now, many researchers believed in the so-called "Cinderella effect."

It states that it is biologically inevitable that parents care less for stepchildren because they do not spread their genes.

Kai Willführ
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany, have discovered an important exception.

If there is a reasonable chance of increasing wealth in the parents' environment then no difference is made between one's own children and stepchildren.

Thus, parental care depends on more than just the biological relationship.

Alain Gagnon
This is the result of a study published by MPIDR researcher Kai Willführ together with Alain Gagnon from the University of Montreal, Canada, in the scientific journal "Biodemography and Social Biology."

"We are now able to prove that the Cinderella effect is not an inevitable reflex of stepparents," says Kai Willführ.

The scientists investigated if and how strongly parents neglected their stepchildren by looking at the mortality of children in historic patchwork families from the 17th to 19th century.

They compared the Krummhörn region of East Frisia (Germany), which was a densely populated area with little space for economic development, and the growing Canadian settlements in Québec.

For both areas they calculated how the children's chances of survival changed when a stepmother moved in.

The conclusions showed that only in Krummhörn, which offered fewer opportunities for economic growth, the stepmother had a negative influence.

In Krummhörn children from a father's first marriage died more often before the age of 15 if a stepmother moved in.

This effect was not seen in Québec. The "Cinderella effect," therefore, does not inevitably seem to occur. The stepmothers must have treated their children in East Frisia and Canada completely differently.

When do stepchildren die young?
The extent of this effect is striking: if a Krummhörn girl lost her mother early, the likelihood of her dying before the age of 15 more than doubled compared to a girl whose mother did not die.

If the father remarried and the stepmother joined the family, mortality doubled again. Thus, the arrival of a stepmother affected the girls in East Frisia as much as the death of their own mother.

In Québec, however, the risk of dying young barely changed when the new mother moved in.

"The stepmothers in Québec seemed to understand that the offspring from their husband's first marriage were not competition for their own children with their new husband," says MPIDR researcher Kai Willführ.

In fact, the Canadian half siblings were considered to be allies of the biological children. On the contrary, according to the "Cinderella effect", stepparents would always consider foreign children to be competitors to their own children and thus neglect them.

Love for children is strategy
But that only happened in Krummhörn, where siblings competed for basic needs. "We assume that stepmothers neglected, exploited or even abused the children from their husband's first marriage," says socio-biologist Willführ.

The fact that this only happened in East Frisia shows that the context in which patchwork families are living - whether there is room for economic development or not - strongly influences how parents allocate their affection to their own children and stepchildren.

Although the scientists used historic data, their results have fundamentally challenged the veracity of the "Cinderella effect.

"It is therefore also true today, that stepparents are not always evil," says researcher Kai Willführ. For their study, Willführ and Gagnon traced thousands of children up to age 15 in East Frisia and Québec.

By individually reconstructing whether and when a parent died, a stepmother or stepfather moved in, and whether half-siblings were born during this period, they were able to calculate the influence of all those events on the survival rate of boys and girls.

Dates of births, christenings, weddings and funerals were taken from old church registers. For the Krummhörn region in East Frisia the researchers looked at the birth cohorts from 1720 to 1859, and for Québec at those from 1670 to 1750.

More information: Kai Willführ, Alain Gagnon, Are step-parents always evil? Parental death, remarriage, and child survival in demographically saturated Krummhörn (1720-1859) and expanding Québec (1670-1750) Biodemography and Social Biology, DOI: 10.1080/19485565.2013.833803

Sunday, November 10, 2013

10 Things Your Dog Can Teach Your Child and You - Cesar Milan

A balanced pup or dog can teach a child so much more than how to properly care for an animal and be confident in their lives.

But first you, the Parent, have to create and maintain the balance in the dog and in the child.

You can be loving and friendly but you are NOT a 'friend' of the dog or the child and you should behave accordingly.

They will find and develop their own friendships separate from you and it is important that they do so.

You have a primary responsibility to be the Parent to the child and the Packleader to the dog, focus on those tasks, take them seriously and all will benefit.

Studies have found that a pet encourages a child's physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Children who have pets are more likely to have higher self-esteem, develop better social skills, and even have more friends but do not discount your role in this relationship. It is pivotal.

Here are just a few of the lessons that Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, suggests your dog can impart to your child.

Love and Loyalty
There are few (if any!) species on earth that boast the devotion that comes naturally to a dog. Coming home to that happy face and wagging tail every day without fail can help your child develop confidence and self-esteem.

Dogs provide a wealth of opportunities for your child to get active — joining for the walk, romping around the backyard, or playing a game of fetch.

They also serve as an example of why exercise is so important. Dogs need regular physical activity to stay emotionally and mentally balanced — that's true for humans, too.

The Importance of Family
Dogs are naturally pack animals, and research shows that they bring out that instinct in humans, too. Families spend more time interacting after getting a pet.

Use your dog as an opportunity to connect as a parent. Get the whole pack out for walks, playtime, and involve them in the care and grooming.

A dog is not just another toy to be picked up and put away when your child claims they are bored. A dog is a commitment for the child, as the child is to you as a parent! There is a vital life lesson right there.

If you can't help your child practice reading because you have to cook dinner? No problem! Your dog can take over for awhile.

Research shows that he may actually do a better job than you anyway, particularly if your child is struggling. Why? Children are more relaxed, likely because a dog is a nonjudgmental audience.

Recent research claims that children with reading and learning difficulties such as Dyslexia, benefit greatly when they practice in front of their dog.

Patience and Compassion
A dog isn't capable of all the things that humans are, and as your dog ages, she will require special care and attention.

Understanding those differences can help your child learn to be patient and compassionate with those who suffer from disabilities, the elderly, and younger children.

Reading your dog's body language can help your child pick up on non-verbal communication between humans, too.

You can encourage this by taking the time to teach your child about common cues. It's beneficial for his safety around other dogs, too.

One study asked children what advice they had for kids who had trouble making friends. Their answer? Get a pet!

Dogs encourage your child to put their communication skills to use. Since dogs serve as an easy icebreaker and a shared interest, it makes meeting new friends easier.

If your child has trouble opening up to you, he may still feel comfortable talking to his dog, providing a safe outlet for private thoughts and secrets. The trust he builds with his dog can help him eventually learn to open up to others, too.

The more your child is involved in the care of your animal, the more she'll learn about responsibility. Let your child take the lead on providing for your dog's basic needs (with your supervision, of course).

Sure, dogs help teach responsibility, but more importantly, they also serve as a reminder to let loose, have some fun, and live in the moment!

There are few things more fun (and mood-boosting) than acting nutty and carefree with your pup.

Clearly these lessons are valuable for parents, too.

It's all too easy in this busy day-and-age to lose sight of what's really important. Take a moment to thank your pup for imparting these important life lessons to your pack — and for bringing you all back to the here and now.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Children with Autism: Risk of Vitamin deficiencies from food refusal

The life-threatening health problems that a 9-year-old boy with autism faced recently shed light on an issue that is rarely discussed.

Many children with autism or other developmental disorders tend to eat an extremely narrow range of foods, and this may put them at risk for serious health problems, said Dr. Melody Duvall, lead author of the case report, which was published online Nov. 4 in the journal Pediatrics.

What is it about autism that often makes children resistant to eating a normal and varied diet? One expert had some theories.

"We know many children with autism spectrum disorder have sensory issues, are overly sensitive to certain textures, sounds and perhaps tastes," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

"And many children with an autism spectrum disorder will have an insistence on sameness, are comfortable with routines and have difficulty with transitions."

Those traits often make children insist on eating only a very limited combination of foods, Adesman explained.

"This case report highlights how atypical and narrow the diets are with some children with autism or other severe developmental problems, and that the potential for serious health consequences can follow," said Adesman.

In the case of the 9-year-old boy, the situation was extremely challenging to figure out, explained Duvall, his physician at Boston Children's Hospital.

He came to the emergency department twice, complaining of hip pain so severe he refused to walk.

Physicians looked for neurological or orthopedic reasons for the limp, but found no underlying cause. Physical therapy only worsened his discomfort. He had the usual blood tests, and they were normal.

The physicians then thought he might have Lyme disease, but it was ruled out, Duvall said. He then started developing serious lung and heart problems, had a rapid heart rate, dry cough and difficulty breathing. Eventually, he became so ill he was taken to the intensive care unit, she added.

A chest x-ray showed his right lung and the lower parts of his left lung were filling up with fluid. Tests showed the right side of his heart was functioning poorly.

Physicians thought he might have pneumonia, or even cancer, but those possibilities were eliminated by further tests.

The physicians had no idea what was happening. "The definitive diagnosis of what was underlying his pulmonary hypertension [lung problems] was hard," recalled Duvall. "But then his mother told us he had bleeding gums when his teeth were brushed."

That simple clue led to the boy's diagnosis: severe nutritional deficiency. The bleeding gums were a classic sign of scurvy, a disease caused by not getting enough vitamin C.

The doctors ordered a blood test to check his vitamin and mineral levels. They discovered he had a completely undetectable level of vitamin C and inadequate amounts of vitamin B1, B6, B12 and D.

It was then that the physicians asked about the boy's diet. His mother told them that he would only eat chicken nuggets, crackers, cookies and water. He refused milk, juice, vegetables and fruits, and would not take any form of vitamin.

To treat him, the physicians put him on "an intravenous concoction of vitamins to replete his total body deficiency," explained Duvall.

His heart and lung problems were soon resolved, as was his limp, which had been caused by bone disease associated with his poor diet.

Once home, his mother finally found a way to get him to accept taking a vitamin, Duvall said. She crushed the pill and mixed it into a "peanut butter fluff" sandwich, which involves putting marshmallow cream and peanut butter on bread.

That combination successfully disguised the taste of the vitamin. He also started getting regular vitamin injections from his pediatrician.

Duvall emphasized that the risk of severe health problems from nutritional deficiencies goes beyond children with autism or behavioral problems.

Those also at risk include people with anorexia and other restrictive eating disorders; the elderly; those with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia; alcoholics; immigrants and refugees; and patients with chronic diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.

The researchers noted that while they did not prove definitively that the nutritional deficiency caused the boy's problems, his health issues were resolved soon after he was given vitamins.

Physicians, especially pediatricians, often overlook the topic of nutrition, Duvall said.

"Pediatricians are supposed to talk about immunization, diet and weight maintenance, blood pressure, bullying, parent violence, all in a 10-minute visit," she said. "They have to pick and choose what they talk about."

Duvall said physicians should routinely screen for vitamin and mineral deficiency with a simple blood test.

The bottom line for young and old on less-than-ideal diets? Take a multivitamin, Duvall said.

More information: Learn more about healthy diets from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sibling Bullying: Are Parents in denial about sibling aggression?

Siblings routinely pick on one another, but when does bickering become bullying - and what can parents do about it?

Sibling relationships can be difficult, and never more so than in childhood. But society often regards the scrapping and squabbling, the play fighting and not-so-playful fighting as a normal part of growing up.

"The public brushes off aggression between siblings as just rivalry," says Corinna Tucker of the Carsye Institute, University of New Hampshire.

Tucker is the lead author of a new study on the issue for the journal Pediatrics. Almost a third of the 3,600 children questioned said they had been the victim of some sort of sibling aggression in the past 12 months.

This included a range of acts from theft and psychological abuse to physical assault, either mild or severe. In comparison, research suggests that up to a quarter of children are victims of schoolyard aggression every year.

Corinna Tucker uses the term "sibling aggression" in her study, but psychologists are increasingly reaching for a familiar label for the bad stuff that goes on between brothers and sisters - bullying.

This is defined by experts as intentional acts of aggression, repeated over a period of time, where an individual or group is in a position of power over someone.

So sibling relationships would seem the perfect breeding ground for bullying, since children live together for a long period of time and there is usually an intellectual and physical power imbalance.

Although there might not be an outright malevolence, there is often reason for jealousy.

"A sibling relationship is emotionally intense - it's one of those relationships where you can love them and you can hate them at the same time," says Tucker.

"And siblings are natural competitors for family resources and parents' attention."

Laura - who grew up in a house she shared with four siblings and a foster brother - did not consider it bullying at the time, but now thinks the term captures what went on in their house in Ohio.

"My older brother - I would say he beat up on all of us," she says, her voice breaking. Although he never hurt them badly, he liked to wrestle his sisters, pinning them to the floor.

"He was bigger and stronger than us - he could put us in very powerless situations. It was really scary."

For her brother, she believes, the activity gave him a momentary sense of control at a chaotic time for the family. Her mother, who had depression, had left home.

The children were all particularly mean to the youngest sister Tracy who had been the focus of their mother's attention. In the afternoons, after school and before their father came home from work, they would tease Tracy until she phoned her mother to try to get them to stop.

"I remember us saying to her: 'Mum can't do anything about it - she isn't coming here,'" recalls Laura. "And my dad - I think he was so overwhelmed that he only ended up dealing with the most serious things."

Her father later told Laura that he had sent her foster brother back to the orphanage because he was being bullied so much by Laura's middle sisters, a pair of twins.

Research led by Dieter Wolke at the University of Warwick on large samples of British and Israeli schoolchildren has found that half the children who suffered from sibling bullying also suffered bullying at school - and that this group was particularly at risk of unhappiness or developing behavioural problems.

"If you only have sibling bullying or school bullying you are about 2.7 times more likely to have behaviour problems, but if you have both then it's 14 times more likely," says Wolke. "And the point about this is that you don't have any escape. It's 24/7."

Little is known about the long-term effects of sibling bullying but Jan Parker, a family psychotherapist and a co-author of Raising Happy Brothers and Sisters, is certain that they can be "serious and lifelong".

"We're very familiar with discussions on the impact of [school] bullying," she says. "I don't think it takes a great imaginative leap to understand the impact of it happening within your own home. You feel that you are not only let down by the person bullying you, but also by the adults in your life that are letting it go unchecked."

While sibling fights are normal, parents need to be aware of a pattern developing over time, she says. Parents are advised to talk to the children about what's happening. If they are worried, they could speak to a health professional.

They should also consider what might be causing the problems. "There is one known predictor - it's when siblings perceive there to be a wide disparity between how they are treated and how their brother and sister are treated," she says.

Robin Kowalski spoke to Health Check on the BBC World Service - listen again to the programme on iPlayer or get the Health Check podcast.