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Early intervention works in autism

Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), who are given early treatment, made significant improvements in behaviour, communication, and most strikingly, brain function, a new study by Yale School of Medicine researchers has found.

The results suggest that brain systems supporting social perception respond well to an early intervention behavioural program called pivotal response treatment. This treatment includes parent training, and employs play in its methods.

ASDs are complex neurobiological disorders that inhibit a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and are often accompanied by behavioural challenges.

Until recently, autism diagnosis typically did not occur until a child was about three to five-years-old, and treatment programs were geared for this older age group.  Yale Child Study Center researchers Fred Volkmar, M.D., Kevin A. Pelphrey, and their colleagues are diagnosing children as young as age one.

Pivotal response treatment, developed at the University of California-Santa Barbara, combines developmental aspects of learning and development, and is easy to implement in children younger than age two.

In the current study, the team used functional magnetic resonance imageing — for the first time — to measure changes in brain activity after two five-year-olds with ASD received pivotal response treatment.

Study co-author Pamela Ventola used this treatment method to identify distinct behavioural goals for each child in the study, and then reinforced these targeted skills with treatment involving motivational play activities.

The team found that children who received this treatment showed improvements in behaviour, and being able to talk to other people. In addition, the MRI and electroencephalogram revealed increased brain activity in the regions supporting social perception.

Star formation 30 times lower today

The universe is suffering from a serious “crisis,” an international team of astronomers has revealed.  In the largest ever study of its kind, the team of Portuguese, UK, Japanese, Italian and Dutch astronomers has established that the rate of formation of new stars inthe Universe is now only 1/30th of its peak and that this decline is only set to continue.

The accepted model for the evolution of the Universe predicts that stars began to form about 13.4 billion years ago, or around three hundred million years after the Big Bang.
Many of these first stars are thought to have been monsters by today’s standards, and were probably hundreds of times more massive than our Sun. Such beasts aged very quickly, exhausted their fuel, and exploded as supernovae within a million years or so.
Lower mass stars in contrast have much longer lives and last for billions of years.  Much of the dust and gas from stellar explosions was (and is still) recycled to form newer and newer generations of stars. Our Sun, for example, is thought to be a third generation star, and has a very typical mass by today’s standards. But regardless of their mass and properties, stars are key ingredients of galaxies like our own Milky Way. Unveiling the history of star formation across cosmic time is fundamental to understanding how galaxies form and evolve.

By looking at the light from clouds of gas and dust in these galaxies where stars are forming, the team are able to assess the rate at which stars are being born. They find that the production of stars in the universe as a whole has been continuously declining over the last 11 billion years, being 30 times lower today than at its likely peak, 11 billion years ago.  

Smoke-free laws reduce hospitalisations and deaths

Laws that prohibit smoking at work and other public places result in significantly fewer hospitalisations for heart attacks, strokes, asthma and other respiratory conditions, a new UCSF analysis has found.  The research provides evidence that smoke-free laws that cover workplaces, restaurants and bars have the biggest impacts on hospitalizations, reduce health care costs and also raise quality of life, the researchers said.

“The public, health professionals, and policy makers need to understand that including exemptions and loopholes in legislation – such as exempting casinos – condemns more people to end up in emergency rooms,” said senior author Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, UCSF professor of medicine.

“These unnecessary hospitalisations are the real cost of failing to enact comprehensive smoke-free legislation,” he said.  For decades, Glantz and his colleagues at UCSF have been pioneers in tobacco research, disclosing how the tobacco industry manipulated its products and led the public into cigarette addiction.  The authors found that comprehensive smoke-free laws were followed rapidly by significantly lower rates of hospital admissions than before the laws went into force: a 15 per cent drop in heart attack hospitalisations; a 16 per cent drop in stroke hospitalisations, a 24 per cent drop in hospitalisations for respiratory diseases.

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