Why There May Never Be a Cure for Autism

Autism science is making great strides, but it may never yield a single cure because autism is likely not one disorder but many.

The word "cure" often gets in the way of autism research, says Gerald Fischbach, Scientific Director of the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative. "I don’t know of any neuropsychiatric disorder other than an infection that has been cured," he says. But that news is not as pessimistic as it sounds. A silver bullet cure may not be on the horizon, but new therapies and treatments could vastly improve the lives of those with ASD by targeting the individual components of the disorder. "The goal is to improve the quality of life of people who experience autistic symptomology," says Fischbach.

Further complicating the search for a cure is that autism appears to be a constellation of disorders. "I don’t think we’re going to find a cure for autism because I don’t think autism is really a single disorder," says Susan Bookheimer of UCLA. "As long as that is the case we’re going to have to find many approaches to treating different aspects of autism."

So where does this pursuit lead? Autism researchers are currently trying to find the pathways that lead from genes to neurobiological differences and in turn to behavioral differences. In particular, a great effort is currently underway to identify the genes that cause autism, says Michael Wigler, a geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. During his Big Think interviewed in 2010, Wigler described this effort: "By doing very exhaustive sequence comparisons of children to their parents, we will identify the actual culprit genes, and that will take us two to four years." He estimates that there will be up to 400 genes—any one of which could cause autism. "When we have those genes, when we see what they do, we can see what pathways they are interacting with, and some of those will suggest immediately treatments that can be tested."

As in many areas of medicine, this is a time of tremendous optimism, but "it's a marathon, not a sprint," says Christopher Walsh, Chief of the Division of Genetics at Children's Hospital Boston. "We now have the first sort of beginning of what we hope will be a raging bonfire of possible treatments," he believes. "But right now it’s just a couple of little hopeful flames that we’re trying to blow on and nurse as well as we can to get them going."

More Resources:

—A recent Yale School of Medicine study that identifies the neural signatures of autism.

—A scientific study investigating whether MDMA (ecstasy) or a similar compound can increase empathy in those with autism.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • In some fundamental ways, humans haven't changed all that much since the days when we were sitting around communal fires, telling tales.
  • Although we don't always recognize them as such, stories, symbols, and rituals still have tremendous, primal power to move us and shape our lives.
  • This is no less true in the workplace than it is in our personal lives.

Has a black hole made of sound confirmed Hawking radiation?

One of Stephen Hawking's predictions seems to have been borne out in a man-made "black hole".

Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Surprising Science
  • Stephen Hawking predicted virtual particles splitting in two from the gravitational pull of black holes.
  • Black holes, he also said, would eventually evaporate due to the absorption of negatively charged virtual particles.
  • A scientist has built a black hole analogue based on sound instead of light.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • The word "creative" is sometimes waved around like a badge of honor. We speak of creativity in hushed tones, as the special province of the "talented". In reality, the creative process is messy, open, and vulnerable.
  • For this reason, creativity is often at its best in a group setting like brainstorming. But in order to work, the group creative process needs to be led by someone who understands it.
  • This sense of deep trust—that no idea is too silly, that every creative impulse is worth voicing and considering—is essential to producing great work.