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Advances in Autism Research From the Israeli Desert

Advances in Autism Research From the Israeli Desert

May 30, 2017

Medical Research

J Weekly — Autism researchers Ilan Dinstein, Ph.D., of BGU’s Department of Psychology and Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience; Gal Meiri, M.D., head of the Preschool Psychiatric Unit at Soroka University Medical Center; and Idan Menashe, Ph.D., of BGU’s Department of Public Health and Zlotowski Center, were recently in the Bay Area to speak at two forums on advances in autism research coming out of Israel.

The events, sponsored by AABGU’s Northwest Region, were held at Palo Alto’s Oshman Family JCC and at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Dr. Idan Menashe, M.D.; Dr. Gal Meiri, M.D.; Dr. Ilan Dinstein. Ph.D.

Dr. Idan Menashe, M.D.; Dr. Gal Meiri, M.D.; Dr. Ilan Dinstein. Ph.D.

The researchers spoke about their research dedicated to understanding autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that presents a variety of symptoms, from poor social skills and mutism to low IQ and heightened sensory sensitivity.

One in 70 children born in the United States will receive a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. In Israel, the incidence stats improve slightly, with about one diagnosis in every 150 children.

Dr. Ilan Dinstein established Israel’s first neurophysiological autism lab. Along with his research team, he uses neuroimaging techniques, such as MRI and EEG, to study brain structure and function in children with autism. Their goal is to identify objective biological measures for diagnosis at earlier ages.

Dr. Dinstein works with scores of patients at BGU’s Negev Autism Center located next to Soroka University Medical Center in Beer-Sheva. “We have the only database in Israel that already contains information about more than 300 kids and their families,” says Dr. Dinstein.

As for the causes of autism, BGU researchers believe genetics plays a role, as do external factors, such as the intrauterine environment.

One of Dr. Dinstein’s areas of focus has been sensory sensitivity. Many people with autism do not like to be touched. Even the tag on the back of a shirt may make them uncomfortable. He also has looked into the high incidence of insomnia. Children with autism, some as young as 18 months, may sleep as little as four hours a night.

“Sleep is extremely important for cognitive development,” he notes. “If a child is not sleeping well, it could be an enforcer of learning difficulties. If a child is sleep deprived it might not be a big wonder they’re not cooperating with clinicians or learning how to socialize.”

Among the potential treatments for autism-related insomnia, Dr. Dinstein is looking at cannabis. But he knows more study must first take place.

“If cannabis turns out to be useful for sleep and reducing sensory sensitivities, you need something quantitative,” he says.

“It’s all behavioral, subjective and loose. We may need EEG exams to identify kids who will respond well. It’s for sure the case that cannabis will not benefit all the kids with autism.”

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