For decades, the word “autism” meant an immutable brain disorder, one determined solely by genes and that was only marginally responsive to therapies. Today it is coming to mean something different and more manageable. A growing body of research is dramatically changing the face and future of autism. In The Autism Revolution, a new book from Harvard Health Publications that I wrote with Karen Weintraub, I explain this evolution in autism science and offer strategies for families to help their children right now. One practical finding is that autism is not just a brain disorder but a whole-body condition. Treating digestive and immune system problems can make a profound difference in the family’s life, and even in the autism itself. Another finding is that autism may not necessarily be fixed for life, and that some kids improve with time and treatment.
Grief can look a lot like depression. Both can make people cry, feel down, have trouble sleeping or eating, and may not feel like doing anything or take pleasure in anything. One key difference is that individuals with major depression tend to be isolated and feel disconnected from others, and may shun support and assistance from others. Some people who are grieving find that an antidepressant helps restore sleep and appetite. Others find it inhibits the grieving process. In general, the grieving process should be allowed to naturally run its course unless a person experiences thoughts of suicide, serious weight loss, or is unable to perform daily functions such as getting out of bed or going to work for more than a day here or there.
Children who snore, or sometimes stop breathing during sleep for a few seconds then recover with a gasp (a pattern known as sleep apnea), are more likely to become hyperactive, overly aggressive, anxious, or depressed, according to a new new study in the journal Pediatrics. How could snoring or apnea contribute to behavioral or emotional problems? It is possible that nighttime breathing problems during the brain’s formative years decrease the supply of oxygen to the brain. That could interfere with the development of pathways that control behavior and mood. It is also possible that breathing problems disturb sleep, and it’s the interrupted or poor sleep by itself that may cause trouble in the developing brain.
Drinking in the workplace may be an emerging trend, but it isn’t necessarily a healthy one. Although drinking on the job may not be as widespread as portrayed on the hit TV show Mad Men, it is still with us. About 8% of full-time employees report having five or more drinks on five or more occasions a month, and one survey showed that 23% of upper-level managers reported drinking during work hours in the prior month. In the United States, excessive drinking costs $223 billion a year. Some of these costs are generated by the nearly 18 million Americans who are alcoholics or have alcohol-related problems. But some also comes from a nearly invisible group, “almost alcoholics.”
Beginning in 1998, infectious disease and mental health experts have identified children who develop symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or tic disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome after an infection. First thought to be linked only to the group A streptococcus bacteria that cause strep throat or scarlet fever, it has been seen with other kinds of infections. Experts propose calling this frightening disorder pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS). It probably happens when the infectious agent gets into the brain and inflames the basal ganglia. Rapid treatment with antibiotics can reverse the symptoms.
Games are meant to be fun and exciting. Some involve the body, some the mind. Others do both. Researchers are tapping into this engagement to use games to heal an ailing mind or body. Researchers are testing virtual reality to help people with mental and physical problems ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder and stroke rehabilitation to smoking cessation and stuttering. Exergames may also help people become more physically active. Although they won’t help you lose weight or train for a marathon, many meet the American Heart Association’s criteria for “moderate-intensity daily activity,” meaning they could stand in for taking a walk.
It is normal for children at some points in their development to be concerned about sameness and symmetry and having things perfect. But when such beliefs or behaviors become all-consuming and start interfering with school, home life, or recreational activities, the problem may be obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Obsessions are irrational thoughts, images, and impulses that a person feels as unrealistic, intrusive, and unwanted. To relieve the anxiety caused by these obsessions, a youth may engage in compulsive rituals. Two main types of treatment are used to help youths better manage OCD: a form of talk therapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication. The ideal approach is to try cognitive behavioral therapy before turning to medication.
One of the challenges faced by many servicemen and servicewomen returning from war is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This a lasting and exaggerated reaction to a terrifying or life-threatening event. It makes a person feel like he or she is living through the event over and over again. PTSD shows itself in three main ways: re-experiencing, avoidance, and arousal. Traumatic events can create memories that are stronger, more vivid, and more easily recalled than normal events. These haunting memories activate brain circuits that are responsible for instantly responding to potentially life-threatening situations. Good treatments are available for PTSD. A type of talk therapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy appears to be the most effective. Antidepressants and other medications can also help.
A new study involving 1.2 million children and young adults provided reassuring evidence that the drugs used to treat ADHD do not increase the risk of death from heart disease. Researchers analyzed medical records from a nationwide private insurance plan along with health plans based in Tennessee, California, and Washington State. They compared children taking stimulant drugs (like Ritalin and Adderall) that are commonly used to treat ADHD to children not taking these drugs. Cardiac problems were no more common among children using a stimulant as among those not taking one.
Americans are taking antidepressants in astounding numbers. According to a report released yesterday by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the rate of antidepressant use in this country among teens and adults (people ages 12 and older) increased by almost 400% from the early 1990s to the mid 2000s. The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. Antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in the study period. Antidepressant use was higher in women than men, and in whites than blacks or Hispanics.