Illustration of hybrid objects: part light bulb, part lab vial, some in blue and some in red to signify null and replicated results.
Illustration by Laurène Boglio
Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Null and Noteworthy: Mind reading, specialist shortage, sleep problems source

This month, a commonly used emotion-recognition test doesn’t perform as expected — nor does a survey of past efforts to train autism specialists or a hunt for the sources of the sleep problems that often accompany the condition.

Last month, an editorial advocating for open research in autism called for scientists to publish null findings: “The literature must include publication of null results from well-powered studies,” the authors wrote. “Otherwise, publication bias toward significant differences skews the evidence base.”

We at Spectrum couldn’t agree more, and we are happy to bring you this month’s collection of null and replicated results in autism research. If you have comments, suggestions or papers you think we should see, please send them along to [email protected]. Thanks for reading.

Emotion equivalence:

Much of early autism research rests on the long-held belief that autistic people have trouble with theory of mind, or intuiting others’ thoughts and emotions. Historically, scientists have measured theory of mind using the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” assessment, which gauges a person’s ability to infer emotions from photographs of other people’s eyes.

Autistic people perform no differently than neurotypical people on the test, a new study of 196 participants (98 with autism) finds. Autistic people also out-perform neurotypical people when the eye photos are replaced with cartoon versions, providing support for socio-cognitive differences, rather than deficits, between the groups.

The results were published in July in Autism Research.

Specialist shortage:

Trainees in child and adolescent psychiatry receive roughly three hours per year of instruction about autism and four about intellectual disability, according to a 2013 survey of 37 residency program directors. Respondents also reported seeing few patients — between one and five — with autism or intellectual disability, pushing the directors to call for more training about the two conditions.

Nearly a decade later, the hours of training remain largely unchanged, according to a new survey of 78 program directors. Almost half of child and adolescent psychiatrist program directors — 44 percent — reported that their trainees had between four and six hours of training in autism, and 68 percent of general psychiatry program directors reported their trainees had between one and three.

Hours of training and number of patients seen with autism or intellectual disability were positively correlated with trainees’ comfort and interest in caring for people with these conditions.

The results were published in Autism in August.

Zilch on the zzz’s:

Sleep problems are common in autism: Many autistic children and adults have insomnia and spend too little time in the deepest stage of sleep. But those sleep problems do not appear to be linked to genetic predispositions for insomnia or autism, according to new findings.

There was also no evidence that autistic people who had insomnia had more rare or disruptive variations in genes related to melatonin or circadian rhythm than autistic people without insomnia, according to the study of 1,398 participants.

The findings were published in Research in Developmental Disabilities in July.

Et al.:

  • Autistic people often have high blood levels of serotonin, past research shows. The amount of serotonin in cord blood, though, is not associated with an increased likelihood of autism, according to a new study of 996 children. Translational Psychiatry
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia, are often linked with autism. Mirroring past research, a new study of 3,189 Swedish participants — 134 of whom have autism — shows that autistic people have more severe anorexia symptoms than do non-autistic people. Genes associated with autism were not linked to eating-disorder severity, however. European Eating Disorders Review
  • Sensory integration therapy, a play-based therapy delivered by occupational therapists, did not improve behaviors such as agitation or irritability more than standard care when delivered over 6.5 months, a new study of 138 children has found. Health Technology Assessment
  • Cannabinoid treatment is no better than placebo at improving sleep in autistic people, according to a study of 150 autistic children and teens. Improved sleep, however, did raise the participants’ scores on measures of a particular autism trait: social responsiveness. Biomedicines
  • Maternal autoantibody-related autism is a type of autism associated with a woman’s production of antibodies during pregnancy in response to proteins in the fetus’ developing brain. This subtype is present in about 20 percent of autistic children in Northern California, according to previous studies. The subtype is similarly prevalent — in 24 percent of autistic children — in Pennsylvania and Arkansas, according to new research. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics
  • Protein production is decreased in a mouse model of tuberous sclerosis complex, replicating previous in vivo research. eNeuro