UNC Health Talk

UNC autism article named one of top 10 papers of 2015

Autism Speaks, a leading international autism science and advocacy organization, tabbed a joint research paper by University of North Carolina and University of Western Australia autism experts as one 2015’s top 10 scientific papers related to autism.

The paper, published last fall in the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, identified for the first time the high rate of Parkinson’s disease in older autism patients. Joseph Piven, MD, the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology at the UNC School of Medicine and director of the Carolina Institute Developmental Disorders (CIDD), was the senior author.

“We wanted to study older people with autism because so little is known about them and their needs as they age,” Piven said. “We found that a substantial number of adults over age 39 had Parkinson’s disease. This has serious implications for understanding the neurobiology of the disorder and treatment in older adults, especially in light of the prevalence of autism in school-age children.”

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by symptoms, such as tremors, body rigidity, imbalance, and slowness of movement.

Paul Wang, Autism Speaks head of medical research, said, “This study emphasizes what Autism Speaks has long advocated: our adult community needs more resources and more specialized services to address potential autism-related complications such as Parkinson’s, and psychiatric issues such as anxiety and depression.” The full top 10 list can be found here.

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by symptoms, such as tremors, body rigidity, imbalance, and slowness of movement.

The paper’s importance to the field further illustrates UNC’s place in the autism research community. According to a 2010 Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee report – the most recent assessment of its kind – UNC was ranked second worldwide in the number of peer-reviewed autism papers. In 2013, UNC research on the genetics of autism made the top 10 list of breakthroughs that “most powerfully advance our understanding and treatment of autism,” according to Autism Speaks.

The 2015 paper, “High Rates of Parkinsonism in Adults with Autism,” was a collaboration with Sergio Starkstein, MD, PhD, at the University of Western Australia. UNC co-authors include Morgan Parlier, MSW, a clinical social work faculty member at the CIDD, and Leslie Payne, MSW, a former graduate student at CIDD.

In this paper, the researchers show data from two independent studies from two different countries. They found that four of the 20 participants who were not taking atypical neuroleptic drugs were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This 20 percent rate of diagnosis was 200 fold higher than the normal rate of incidence – one in 1000 or 0.1 percent – among the general population of people age 45-65.

There was an even higher rate of Parkinson’s among participants taking neuroleptic drugs, which can cause Parkinson’s symptoms.

Piven said these were small studies and need to be replicated in a larger pool of people with autism.

“But we think these findings are the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Studying older populations of people with autism is a new frontier, and we think this continued work will uncover very important information clinicians and patients need for us to better care for people with autism as they age.”

Piven is also a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center.