After air traffic/weather delays, I arrived in Philadelphia late last night. By the time I made my way downtown to the hotel, and had a chance to catch up on some required work e-mail, I was was pretty well ready for bed. Having had a very busy past couple of weeks at work did not leave me much time to preview the IMFAR program materials, so before turning in, I’d figured I’d better look through it thoroughly.
And that’s when the pure size of IMFAR finally sunk into my brain. To cover this, from one blogger’s perspective, is going to be a huge challenge. There is absolutely no way for one human to assign attention to all that is here in the field of autism research – a great deal of the presentations occur simultaneously in separate meeting rooms.
For me, IMFAR started with this afternoon’s press conference. Organized by INSAR, and following a brief introduction by Dr. David Amaral (INSAR’s president), Dr. David Mandell (the IMFAR Scientific Program Committee Chair) spoke briefly about just how large IMFAR has become – from couple of hundred abstracts and a few hundred attendees nine years ago, to closer to a thousand accepted abstracts and a couple thousand attendees this year.
Dr. Mandell shared what he thought were two imporant themes from this year’s scientific program, the first being the volume of good research that seems to be emerging. Although Dr. Mandell pointed to progress in animal models and gene research (and its subsequent relevance in gene-brain imaging/brain functioning research), he seemed to ascribe importance to pointing out a second theme, in that reasearch is also beginning to focus on more pragmatic things - or to paraphrase his words, research is beginning to look at things that can effect “real and positive change”.
For many in the autism community, this is bound to raise ethics questions about “treatment” for autism in general, but put aside debate over social vs. medical model of autism, if only for the moment. There’s another important aspect, and Dr. Mandell did not miss this. Studying treatments has the potential to effect real and positive change, because many treatments and “alternative medicine” in use by families on children are simply untested, and some even have the potential to be dangerous.
As an example of a treatment study that has the potential to encourage parents to take a closer look at the science, Dr. Susan Hyman from the University of Rochester presented her team’s findings from their GFCF study (this is the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled that began in 2003). I’ll spare the gory details, as they are well-documented in the previous post GFCF of no benefit. Suffice it to say that what started with anecdotal reports of specific benefits for autistic children from a GFCF diet, is not supported by scientific data when studied with good research methodology. While it’s important to note that this small study has more rigorous methodology than any previous study on the use of the GFCF diet with autistic children, it’s also important to note that these are pre-publication results shared with the press and at IMFAR. Additionally, when asked about any real scientific basis for the GFCF diet for autism, and after acknowledging the historical [but not necessarily scientifically founded] aspect of a “leaky gut and opioid excess hypothesis”, Dr. Hyman was careful to point out that there may be other complex areas in nutrition that are relevant for learning and behavior in autistic children.
Even with what are essentially negative results for this study, it appears that “nutrition and autism” research will continue at the University of Rochester. I suspect that this University of Rochester GFCF RCT will dominate autism news for the next couple of days, as it seems to have that appeal of a topic of popularity. It also wouldn’t surprise me if this story is a headline for some of the mainstream media tomorrow.
Next up: More on Autism and Divorce Debunked! Plus a little more about some of the other abstracts from the press conference. I’ll also share a little about the pieces of the program I plan to attend, so anyone wishing to, can follow along in the published program, as I attend and report back here.
(Disclosure: my attendance at IMFAR was funded in part, by a travel grant from the Autism Science Foundation.)