Network television; facing forward; warm welcome

Researchers captured networks of neurons lighting up in a small aquatic animal, facial recognition software can flag genetic conditions, and a Muppet with autism makes her debut on “Sesame Street.”

By Catherine Caruso
14 April 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.
  • In a neuroscience first, scientists have recorded the activity of every neuron in a hydra — a tiny, transparent aquatic animal related to jellyfish.

    The hydra’s nervous system consists of a few thousand neurons that spread throughout its body like a net. Researchers genetically modified the neurons to glow when they fire. This allowed them to watch circuits of neurons light up in real time.

    Different networks of neurons light up when the hydra opens its mouth to eat or huddles in a ball to hide from predators, the researchers reported 30 March in Current Biology.

    New Scientist highlighted the discovery this week, with an incredible video of the hydra’s nervous system in action.

    “Hydra have the simplest ‘brain’ in the history of the earth, so we might have a shot at understanding those first and then applying those lessons to more complicated brains,” lead researcher Rafael Yuste, professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, told New Scientist.

  • Researchers are repurposing facial recognition software to identify genetic conditions, STAT reported this week.

    Certain genetic conditions are associated with atypical facial features, called dysmorphology. A 2014 Spectrum story explored dysmorphology in autism.

    The STAT story highlights the latest efforts to spot dysmorphic features in children with neurodevelopmental conditions. Researchers are using databases of photos of people with the conditions to train computer algorithms to recognize dysmorphic features.

    A computer program described last month in the American Journal of Medical Genetics can detect DiGeorge syndrome and Down syndrome. Another program, called Face2Gene, uses facial measurements to determine the probability that a person has a particular genetic condition.

  • An article in The New York Times highlights a little-known downside of private school vouchers. Some parents of children with neurodevelopmental conditions see the vouchers as a way to access better education for their children. But many don’t realize that by enrolling their children in private schools, they forfeit their child’s rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

    “I never in a million years thought that in this private educational setting that my child would not be protected by state and federal law,” Lisa Siegel, who has a son with autism, told The New York Times.

    Siegel’s son was suspended from his private school because of behavioral problems. Parents of children in public schools have the right to a hearing where they can challenge disciplinary action if a child’s behavior resulted from a disability. Parents of children in private schools do not have this right. “You don’t have much recourse,” Siegel told the newspaper.

  • The gene-testing company 23andMe has received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an at-home test that gauges a person’s likelihood of developing any of 10 conditions, Nature reported this week.

    The test will tell people if they carry mutations associated with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and celiac disease — a severe form of gluten intolerance. All of the conditions have strong ties to specific genetic mutations. The test does not take into account non-genetic risk factors, such as lifestyle and family history.

    Some experts fear that users will have difficulty interpreting the test results without the guidance of a genetic counselor. “I’m not a big fan of cutting out the middleman when the middleman is a trained professional and most of the country doesn’t understand much about health,” Stanford bioethicist Hank Greely told Nature.

  • The beloved children’s show “Sesame Street” welcomed a new Muppet this week. Her name is Julia, and she has autism.

    Julia doesn’t respond right away when Big Bird introduces himself, she has a strong negative reaction when she hears an ambulance siren, and she takes longer to join in games. But her friends are understanding and supportive of her differences.

    Watching the episode was an emotional experience for Jennifer Malia, an English professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia, whose son and daughter have autism. Malia also has an autism diagnosis.

    “Julia gives me hope that my children and their peers will grow up in a world where autism is normalized, rather than stigmatized,” Malia wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. “I hope that having Julia as an accepted and likable character on ‘Sesame Street’ will make it easier for my kids on the spectrum to navigate the social world.”

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