Edited human embryos; prenatal antidepressants; gut thinking and more

Researchers in Oregon edit human embryos, prenatal antidepressants may play a role in autism risk, and gut microbiota are associated with early cognition.

By Emily Willingham
28 July 2017 | 5 min read
This article is more than five years old.
Neuroscience—and science in general—is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.
  • An Oregon group has created the first CRISPR-modified human embryos in the United States. Using “many tens” of embryos from in vitro fertilization, Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his colleagues altered each embryo’s DNA at the single-cell stage, reports MIT Technology Review, which broke the story on 26 July. The results are unpublished, but the investigators reportedly avoided worrisome pitfalls previously associated with the gene-editing technique.

    The precise disease-associated sequence they targeted is not yet known, and the embryos developed only for a few days. But MIT Technology Review calls the findings “a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey” toward fully developed genetically modified humans.

  • The potential link between prenatal antidepressant use and autism risk has long been a nagging conundrum, especially because maternal depression may muddy the association. A study published 19 July in the British Medical Journal tackles the issue using three methods to triangulate the risk. The results? The mother’s depression may not fully explain the link, so antidepressants could play a role.

    In an accompanying editorial, Diana Schendel of Aarhus University in Denmark says that the results “should be viewed through the kaleidoscope of possible causes of autism.” Schendel also notes that antidepressants raise the risk of having a child with autism but not intellectual disability more than that of having a child with both conditions. And she calls the findings “reassuring” because they show that almost all women — 95 percent — taking antidepressants during pregnancy do not have a child with autism.

  • A potential connection between the gut and brain has intrigued autism researchers for years. New findings suggest an association between gut microbiota and cognition in toddlerhood. The results, published 27 June in Biological Psychiatry, have potential implications for developmental conditions, such as autism, that can involve language or cognitive delays.
  • Autism and Williams syndrome share some features but tend to diverge when it comes to sociability — children with Williams syndrome are unusually social. Now researchers have found a genetic overlap between people with Williams syndrome and dogs, which also are known for their friendliness. The DNA sequence shows a lot of individual variation in both people with Williams syndrome and trusting canines, Science reported on 19 July.
  • If you recognize ‘midi-chlorian’ as a made-up life form that exists only in “Star Wars” movies, congratulations. You’re more alert than the four ‘predatory’ journals that accepted a Star Wars-themed hoax paper claiming that “midichlorial disorders often erupt as brain diseases, such as autism.” Neuroskeptic, the nom de web of the blogger who perpetrated the sting, described it in a 22 July post.

    Three of the four journals even published the hoax paper, although Neuroskeptic declined to pay them the fee they’d requested. All three journals have since removed the published version from their sites.

    In addition to the autism quote above, other gems include “midichloria perform functions such as Force sensitivity” and “midichloria DNA (mtDNRey),” a reference to Rey, the lead female character in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

  • The first-ever Africa Regional International Meeting for Autism Research is set to take place as part of an international congress in South Africa. The Nurturing Our Future meeting will cover three broad themes: autism and associated conditions, families and children, and the mental health and well-being of adolescents. Invited speakers for the 7-9 September meeting, which Spectrum plans to cover, include Roy Richard Grinker and Geraldine Dawson.
  • Do you have an article among the 100 most-cited neuroscience papers published since 1945? To find out, you’ll have to check the list published 21 July in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The list includes 78 papers, covering five areas of interest to autism researchers: neurological conditions, brain connectivity, brain mapping, the prefrontal cortex and studies of methodology.

    The most-cited researcher on the list was Oxford University’s Stephen M. Smith, with his name on six of the articles. Citation counts ranges from 2,138 to 7,326, with an average of about 3,000 per paper. Oddly enough, journal impact factor seemed to have no association with citation count, although Science was host to the most articles on the list, at 13.

    The study researchers say that no one on the list has won a Nobel prize, but Stanley Prusiner is one of the 533 investigators on the most-cited papers. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1997 for his discovery of prions.

  • A psychiatry association has given its members permission to set aside the ‘Goldwater rule,’ which prevents clinicians from discussing the psychiatric features of public figures they’ve never met. The American Psychoanalytic Association cited the “different” behavior of Donald Trump in apprising its members of the change, reported STAT on 25 July.

    Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Leonard Glass publicly resigned from the American Psychiatric Association over its retention of the rule, STAT also reported. He called the rule “an unacceptable infringement” on his duty to talk about issues where a psychiatrist’s perspective “could be very relevant and enlightening.”

  • Autism and the immune system may be linked, at least in a subset of people. Growing evidence suggests a role for immunity in other brain-related conditions that can look like Tourette syndrome, autism or obsessive-compulsive disorder. A Discover article, published online 25 July, digs into the shifting clinical picture of these conditions, collectively known as pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome, or PANS.
  • The Koegel Autism Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara has a new director and big plans, the center announced in a 19 July statement. Clinical psychologist Ty Vernon took over as director in early July, joined by Anna Krasno, who is the center’s new clinical director. Plans include an expanded focus on adults with autism and their needs.

    Are you making a career move? Do you have a new paper coming out? Did you see a study or news story that you want to share? Send your news tips to [email protected].