Hoping to solve a piece of the autism puzzle, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago is looking at the relationship between the brain chemical serotonin and the trait known in the field as "insistence on sameness."
With the help of a five-year, $9.6 million federal grant, the team is using a combination of genetics, medication and brain scans to explore possible mechanisms behind this craving for routine.
There's no single pattern to autism spectrum disorders, which affect perhaps 1 in 150 children. Some with autism repeat phrases over and over. Some barely interact with anyone. Others are outgoing, but their lack of social skills can sabotage their efforts to make friends. Up to a quarter have insistence on sameness, said geneticist Ed Cook, director of autism and genetics in UIC's psychiatry department.
The differences make autism a challenging condition to study and to treat.
"Autism is too big as a whole to attack," said John Sweeney, director of UIC's Center for Cognitive Medicine and the group's brain imaging specialist. "We have to go through the brain bit by bit to find out what's working and what's not. Get the bricks sorted out, and then build the house."