Related Neurodevelopmental Disorders

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Sensory Processing Disorder

Imagine that the sound of a vacuum cleaner were so noxious that you had to cover your ears and run, or that the sensation of your mother touching your arm were so uncomfortable that you avoided physical contact completely. Such sensory aversions, if they arise early enough, can make it impossible for children to learn from parents, peers, and the world around them.

Mounting evidence suggests that many children with autism spectrum disorders show differences in their processing of basic sensory information, including sound, touch, and sight. These differences can occur at different stages in the brain’s processing of information, from primary awareness or perception, to integration with other sensory information, through the construction of the intended motor response. A child who is having trouble understanding auditory information will have more difficulty with language development, and a child with atypical visual tracking and processing will have trouble reading the facial and gestural cues that are critical to social interactions.

However, not all children with sensory behavior differences display the social and communication deficits seen with individuals on the autism spectrum. We believe that studying sensory processing in children with autism, as well as in those without it, will help with the design of personalized interventions.

Read more about the UCSF Sensory Processing Disorder Group and their research.

Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum

The corpus callosum is the structure that connects the right and left sides of the brain. There are individuals who are born with some or all of the structure missing or atypically formed, a condition, known as agenesis of the corpus callosum (AgCC). AgCC has many causes, some of them still unknown.

There are genetic disorders associated with the condition, such as the ARX gene, as well as toxic exposures in the womb that contribute to abnormalities of the corpus callosum, such as fetal alcohol syndrome. Interestingly, many individuals with autism have been found to have abnormalities of their corpus callosum and many individuals with AgCC have been shown to have autistic features.

Children with AgCC often have extremely high pain tolerance and difficulties with learning and attention. Some individuals with AgCC will have epilepsy, and some will have savant abilities like Kim Peek, the man on whom the film “Rain Man” was based.

Ongoing AgCC research at UCSF, using genetics, imaging, and cognitive studies, will help to elucidate the role of the corpus callosum in autism and other disorders.

Cognition and Behavior after Childhood Stroke

Once considered uncommon, there is now growing recognition that babies and children have strokes.

One category of childhood stroke is perinatal stroke, which occurs at or around the time of delivery. Perinatal stroke can result in problems with sensory processing, motor abilities, learning, as well as seizures. Children can have difficulties in one or many of these areas, or may have no problems at all. In some cases, difficulties may not be evident until children begin school.

Children can also have strokes after the newborn period that result in motor and cognition problems such as the ability to plan and sequence tasks. Colleagues at UCSF and UC Berkeley are beginning to investigate the types of challenges that one can expect after focal brain injury of this kind.

Cognition and Behavior after Premature Birth

Children born prematurely are more likely to show some features of autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders.

Lower birth weight, shorter gestation and brain injury such as bleeding or infection have been found to increase the risk of inattention, sensory hypersensitivity, and other features of autism. Between 25 and 50% of premature infants will go on to have challenges with learning and behavior.

There is very little work focusing on sensory processing problems in this group, however UCSF clinicians working closely with children born prematurely have found auditory and touch sensitivity at a higher rate. We are working to understand how prematurity leads to these differences in thinking and behavior, as well as preventing these consequences for infants in our care.

RASopathies

A class of developmental syndromes caused by mutations in the genes that encode protein components of the Ras/MAPK signaling pathway. These pathways include some of the following disorders: neurofibromatosis, Costello syndrome, cardio-facio-cutaneous syndrome and Noonan syndrome. Many individuals with these disorders experience developmental and cognitive delay.