Mitochondrial risk; anxiety amelioration; fever factor and more

Some variants in mitochondrial DNA are more common than others in autism, cognitive therapy reduces anxiety for people on the spectrum, and maternal fever in the third trimester is tied to autism risk.

By Emily Willingham
25 August 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.
  • The function of mitochondria, which package energy for the cell, has long been implicated in at least a subset of autism diagnoses. A new study underscores this association, revealing that certain patterns of mitochondrial DNA variants are more common than others in people with autism. The results appeared 23 August in JAMA Psychiatry.

    Investigators examined mitochondria lineages from 933 families participating in the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange collection. Five lineages of European origin, one Asian lineage and one Native American lineage were associated with increased autism risk. People with certain mitochondrial DNA lineages were up to twice as likely to have autism as those with other lineages.

  • People on the spectrum report feeling anxious far more often than neurotypical people do. A small study of 19 people with autism suggests that cognitive remediation therapy might ease some of that nagging apprehension. The findings were published 16 August in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment.
  • Maternal fever during pregnancy is linked to autism risk. But it’s unclear whether certain stages of fetal development are more vulnerable to the effects of maternal fever than others.

    A prospective study involving the Boston Birth Cohort, which includes a high proportion of black and Hispanic mothers, points to fever in the third trimester as an important time period. The results were published 11 August in Autism Research.

  • Anorexia nervosa and autism share many features and frequently co-occur. Nevertheless, clinicians struggle to treat both at once, especially when they need to make accommodations related to autism, such as addressing communication barriers. This takeaway emerged from in-depth interviews with nine practitioners in a qualitative study published 10 August in BMC Psychiatry.
  • The genetics of autism is complex and difficult to communicate to nonexperts. A new model, described 29 July in Patient Education and Counseling, aims to simplify the process of counseling families about genomic testing results. It’s called the “cup model.”

    In this model, different-sized balls represent the genetic variants associated with a genetically complex condition such as autism. The ball size indicates the relative level of risk associated with each variant. A cup filled to a certain threshold represents a diagnosis, but how many balls will fill the cup depends on the sizes of the balls.

  • A growing number of companies are recognizing the advantages of hiring people with autism. A new manual aims to help employers tap the strengths of workers on the spectrum while recognizing and accommodating any differences. The book, titled “An Employer’s Guide to Managing Professionals on the Autism Spectrum,” debuted 21 August.
  • Children with autism are among those most likely to be suspended or expelled from school, yet even a temporary forced hiatus can cause lingering harm and increased psychological distress years later. These observations are among the main findings of a new U.K. study, The Guardian reported on 19 August.
  • A ‘vaccine safety commission’ with Robert Kennedy Jr. as its chair has failed to take shape months after it was announced. Kennedy says he has had no discussions with the White House since February about the purported commission but has met with some “top administration officials” about vaccine safety, STAT reported 21 August.

    In an accompanying Q&A with Kennedy, who continues to promote the autism-vaccine myth, STAT mentioned thimerosal, a vaccine preservative perhaps best known for refuted claims that it is an autism risk factor. When STAT noted that autism rates continued to climb after thimerosal was removed from routine childhood vaccines in 2001, Kennedy said, “That just simply isn’t true.” But it is.

  • Science has a widely discussed replication problem. One proposed solution, using a metric called the R-factor — for reproducibility, reputation, responsibility and robustness — has a group of researchers so excited that they’ve established a company to promote it. But the neuroscientist who writes under the nom de blog “Neuroskeptic” is, well, skeptical.

    The R-factor is obtained by “dividing the number of published reports that have verified a scientific claim by the number of attempts to do so.” Neuroskeptic criticizes this approach as “simplistic,” vulnerable to publication bias, and no improvement on what scientists are already doing. Specifically, the R-factor is bad for fields like neuroscience that rely heavily on statistics, Neuroskeptic writes.

  • Marian C. Diamond, the neuroscientist who gained fame for analyzing Albert Einstein’s brain, died 25 July at age 90. Diamond was best known for demonstrating how profoundly the environment can influence brain structure and how malleable some structures can be. An in-depth look at her life’s work was published 16 August in The New York Times.

    George Brooks, one of Diamond’s colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, summed up her biggest contribution, reported the Times: “Dr. Diamond showed anatomically, for the first time, what we now call plasticity of the brain,” he said. “In doing so she shattered the old paradigm of understanding the brain as a static and unchangeable entity that simply degenerated as we age.”

    Another of her claims to fame was her habit of carrying a preserved human brain in a flowered hat box to classroom lectures.

  • 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].