Face learning; mosaic inheritance; nosy scientists and more

A monkey study suggests facial recognition is not innate, a puzzle piece symbol carries negative connotations, and scientists are using a federal law to snoop on colleagues.

By Emily Willingham
8 September 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.
  • Children with autism often have difficulty recognizing faces. The greater the difficulty, the more severe the child’s autism features. A new study in monkeys suggests problems with facial recognition could stem from a lack of practice. Monkeys raised with no exposure to faces do not develop brain areas typically associated with recognizing faces, according to results reported 4 September in Nature Neuroscience.
  • When you see a blue puzzle piece, you probably recognize it as a common symbol of autism. What might not register is whether or not the connection is negative. Investigators addressing that question report that puzzle pieces of all kinds, whether associated specifically with autism or not, conjure negative perceptions of incompleteness. Their work was published 21 August in Autism.
  • The genetics of autism is famously complex. Adding yet another layer are mutations that arise during embryonic development in apparently unaffected parents of children with autism. The parents are genetic mosaics with a limited number of body cells carrying the changes. Children can inherit a greater proportion of cells with the mutations, potentially increasing autism risk, researchers reported 30 August in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

    Roughly 7 percent of mutations thought to have arisen spontaneously in children were present in a proportion of a parent’s cells. In a press release describing the findings, lead researcher Brian O’Roak of Oregon Health and Science University said that “these mutations can go from being in a few percent of the cells of a parent to 100 percent of a child.”

  • Some scientists file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to access their competitors’ successful grant applications to major U.S. federal funders, BuzzFeed reported on 2 September.

    Researchers whom BuzzFeed contacted were taken aback — and largely unhappy — to learn that their colleagues were snooping around in their grant proposals. Sometimes, the requests are for educational purposes, such as using the grants as a model of successful grant writing. But in other cases, the FOIA requests look like an effort to get a peek at what the competition is planning to do — and perhaps beat them to it. Almost one-third of FOIA requests to the National Institutes of Health come from academic institutions, BuzzFeed reported.

  • When her son needed a heart transplant, disability rights advocate Sunshine Bodey was told that no facility would perform one for her son because of his autism. After several hospitals rejected him, her son Lief ultimately received the transplant, but not before he almost died. Transplant programs have “a wide latitude” when it comes to considering neurocognitive disability in their decisions, Bodey wrote 30 August in The Washington Post.
  • A huge study of brain structures and the gene variants that help shape them was posted 28 August to the preprint site bioRxiv. Using data from 40,000 people, the dozens of researchers involved identified 62 gene variants linked to the development of brain structures, such as the amygdala, the brain’s emotion processing center.

    Some of the variants also are associated with psychiatric conditions, such as autism and schizophrenia, and a number of them are involved in synaptic signaling.

  • An applied behavioral analysis (ABA)-related version of the game “Cards Against Humanity” has upset many in the autism community. After the cards were posted online, activists expressed anger about the cards’ crude and dismissive references to people with autism and derisive comments from people who identified as ABA practitioners, NOS Magazine reported on 4 September.

    The cards make fun of “several abusive practices,” writer Sarah Luterman notes. “‘Pinch the nose to release the jaw’ isn’t funny when you’re on the receiving end of ‘feeding therapy’ or having ammonia sprayed in your mouth as a punishment for noncompliance,” she writes.

    The cards also include “multiple references to physical restraint, electric shocks and feces,” according to Luterman.

  • Autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder share features and can coexist, which can make distinguishing the diagnoses difficult. Such distinctions can be important, but getting a diagnostic label may not be as useful as some people think, reported U.S. News and World Report on 30 August.

    It’s not always possible to tell the two conditions apart, developmental pediatrician Mark Bertin told the newspaper. “It’s more important to define what help can be offered without having to fully separate everything out,” he said.

  • Gary Numan, the singer best known for his 1980s hit “Cars,” sees his autism as “an advantage.” His condition also inspired his stage persona of a “stand-offish” person who “didn’t engage or smile,” he told the Daily Express on 5 September. Autism is “an extension of what I am and a big chunk of my songs are about being alone or misunderstood,” Numan said.

    “Asperger’s gives you very useful gifts that other people don’t have such as concentration and obsession,” he told the Daily Express. “When I first got into electronic music I threw myself into it deeply and I knew everything about every bit of equipment in studios I worked in.”

    “There’s just a small price to pay for the advantages it brings,” he said.

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