Maternal immunity; drug doubts; harassment scandal and more

Two studies back the link between autism and maternal inflammation, other work weakens worry about antidepressant use in pregnancy, and a harassment scandal rocks a university’s cognitive science department.

By Emily Willingham
15 September 2017 | 4 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.
  • A growing pile of studies link maternal immunity and autism. A pair of reports published in Nature on 13 September adds to the stack. In the first, investigators describe a brain region associated with behavioral changes in mice exposed in utero to maternal inflammation. The second describes an association among these behaviors, maternal inflammation and maternal gut bacteria in mice.

    Only some types of gut bacteria in the mother lead to altered behavior — such as decreased social activity — in the pups. Wiping out these microbes in the mothers appears to protect the pups from the effects of a simulated maternal infection.

  • Head-movement patterns may hint at autism in early infancy. Researchers compared how infants at high risk for autism (those who have an older sibling with the condition) and those at low risk move their heads during sleep and while listening to spoken language. High-risk infants do not vary their movement with the changing environment, whereas low-risk infants do. The findings were published 12 September in Scientific Reports.

    The investigators describe the unchanging pattern among high-risk infants as “a striking lack of diversity” in movements. They interpret the unvaried response as an expression of an “inflexible sensorimotor system” and an indicator that the developing nervous system in these babies may not be sorting out environmental cues from background noise effectively.

  • Research on the needs of people with autism as they enter adulthood is lacking, and coordination among different service and support programs is critical for adults on the spectrum. These findings top a list of recommendations from a 3 August U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report to Congress. The report is part of the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support Act of 2014.
  • In children, an autism diagnosis can open the door to an ever-lengthening lineup of medications. Research confirming an association between diagnosis and increased medication use raises concerns that people turn to these drugs because they cannot access interventions that target core autism features. The findings were published 18 August in the Journal of Population Therapeutics and Clinical Pharmacology.
  • A sexual harassment scandal is roiling the brain and cognitive sciences department at the University of Rochester in New York. One long-time researcher has resigned in protest and joined seven other professors who filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the alleged actions of a faculty member, Mother Jones reported 8 September.

    Following an investigation into the allegations, university officials decided to take no action against the faculty member, T. Florian Jaeger. However, Jaeger will no longer be teaching an undergraduate class that was assigned to him this semester, Mother Jones reported Wednesday.

  • Antidepressant use during pregnancy has been linked to autism risk, but three studies published earlier this year called the association into question. Findings from a new Danish registry study of almost a million children don’t point to a clear-cut connection, either. The researchers reported a “marginally elevated” autism risk with maternal antidepressants on 6 September in the British Medical Journal.

    “The observed associations of in utero antidepressant exposure with autism spectrum disorder and behavioral disorder are modest, if they exist,” the researchers write.

  • Robots have become a bit of a trend in autism therapy, but forget the stereotype of cold metal machines with computerized voices. A Cornell University-Google partnership is aimed at developing an unintimidating robot autism therapist. The robot, Blossom, sports woolly crocheted coverings that give it the appeal of a cuddly bunny, Fast Company reported 6 September.
  • The U.K. autism research charity Autistica is recruiting participants for its Discover network. People with autism, their family members and autism researchers can sign up. The goal of the network is to include more people with autism in research, and to focus investigations on areas that people on the spectrum and their families select.
  • People who support those with disabilities often can use help themselves. In a small randomized trial, caregivers of people with autism benefited from coping effectiveness training delivered by genetic counselors. The results were published 6 September in the Journal of Genetic Counseling.
  • The wait is over, and some worried autism researchers can celebrate. The U.S. National Institutes of Health has awarded nine grants for the Autism Centers of Excellence program to the tune of almost $100 million over the next five years. Recipients include investigators at Drexel, Emory, Duke and Yale universities and the University of California, Davis, the agency announced 7 September.
  • Do you have a new paper coming out? Are you making a career move? Did you see a study or news story that you want to share? Send your news tips to [email protected].