January 24, 2019

Study to track teen development in those with, without autism

A new study examining stress and arousal across pubertal development in youth with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now enrolling participants, thanks to a $2.3 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).


by Kelsey Herbers

A new study examining stress and arousal across pubertal development in youth with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now enrolling participants, thanks to a $2.3 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Blythe Corbett, PhD, associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and colleagues within the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and SENSE Lab will be following 240 participants — half with a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of ASD and half who are typically developing — between the ages of 10-13 for four years through a series of annual visits.

Blythe Corbett, PhD

Each visit will involve exposing participants to two social interaction sessions within different social contexts and measure stress and hormone levels before and after each interaction. One session requires the participant to perform a speech, while the other involves a simple conversation with peers.

Participants’ stress levels will be determined through a measurement of salivary cortisol — a hormone released by the body that helps fuel one’s “fight-or-flight” instinct — while arousal will be measured through a heart rate variability analysis evaluating respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

The primary goal of the study is to examine changes in stress and arousal levels throughout the stages of puberty in adolescents with and without ASD, which is a population that is often overlooked, according to Corbett.

“Adolescence is a time when so many changes are taking place — cognitive, social, adaptive, hormonal, physical — and it’s often considered a time of potential stress. For some individuals, it can be a pivotal turning point in a positive way as well. We just don’t know a lot about how development is going to impact someone,” said Corbett. “We’ve always been curious about this period of time, but because of the complexity of that developmental window, we need deeper investigation.”

The study will also analyze whether identifiable risk factors exist in a child’s profile prior to the onset of conditions such as severe anxiety and depression.

“In addition to simply looking at differences across the groups between children with autism and typically developing children, we want to really embrace what happens during pubertal development. When we look at a 10-year-old and then look at them again three or four years later when they’re 13 or 14, were there things in their profile when they were 10 that could’ve predicted a secondary diagnosis?” said Corbett. “Conversely, there might be children we identify who are particularly resilient, and again, is that predictive? Are these going to be physiological measures or social measures?”

Previous research conducted by Corbett and colleagues shows that children with ASD interpret social contexts differently than typically developing children. For example, when playing on a playground with peers, children with ASD tend to experience a spike in cortisol levels while typically developing children’s cortisol levels remain relatively the same. When asked to perform a speech, children with ASD have relatively static amounts of cortisol, while cortisol levels in typically developing children tend to spike.

Additional research conducted by the SENSE Lab in 2017 showed that while it’s standard for cortisol levels to be lowest prior to bedtime as the body’s natural way to prepare for sleep, children with ASD often exhibit spiked cortisol levels in the evening, of which pubertal development was a significant predictor.

Aside from measuring stress and arousal, investigators will also assess parents’ perceptions of the child’s social abilities, behavior and development. Children will also self-report.

“Self-reports can sometimes be very different than what a parent reports, especially during adolescence,” said Corbett, who hopes to compare the reports to determine if these discrepancies increase as the child develops. Physical exams will also be performed to determine the stages of the child’s development, as defined by the Tanner scale.

“Even though we’re studying autism, chances are we’re going to have interesting insights into typically developing children as well, especially in terms of social behavior and stress,” said Corbett. “What we’re going to find in this study — with this size sample and following these children for this period of time — is going to provide knowledge that is meaningful for both groups.”

This research is supported by NIMH grant MH111599. Additional investigators include Yasas Tanguturi, MD, Julie Lounds Taylor, PhD, Jennifer Pilkington, CCC-SLP, and Neuroscience graduate student Rachael Muscatello.

To participate in the study, contact senselab@vanderbilt.edu, 615-322-4132 or 615-513-9562. For more information regarding participant criteria and requirements, click here.