Pruning protein; cultural connection; cannabis consent and more

A pruning protein reshapes neurons, culture should be a consideration in trials of autism treatments, and another U.S. state adds autism to the list of indications for medical cannabis.

By Emily Willingham
8 December 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.
  • Girls on the spectrum who meet criteria for “gold-standard” diagnostic measures tend to have more intense autism features than boys on the spectrum, researchers reported 4 December in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. The results raise questions about how sensitive these measures are, the investigators say, noting that girls on the spectrum who had higher cognitive ability were less likely to meet criteria.
  • Compared with people without disabilities, those with disabilities have greater odds of being arrested, according to results reported 1 December in the American Journal of Public Health. Racial disparities also exist within the disability population, the findings show: Black people with disabilities have the greatest probability of being arrested, and white people with disabilities the least.
  • Neurons receive messages from other neurons through branch-like extensions called dendrites. As the brain develops, a protein called E6AP prunes and shapes these cellular contacts. UBE3A, the gene for this protein, has been associated with autism. In a mouse model of autism, overproduction of E6AP leads to too much pruning of dendrites and lost connections, researchers reported 4 December in the Journal of Neuroscience.

    E6AP causes this damage by tagging a protein that prevents cell death, leading to its destruction. That action triggers a chemical pathway that ends with disruption of the cell’s internal structures, causing dendrite loss.

  • The relationship between autism and anxiety is complex. New findings suggest that social anxiety in people on the spectrum may trace to worry that their inner critic will detect social gaffes, rather than to a fear of external criticism. The size of a brain signal in young people with autism is associated with their reports of these fears, researchers reported 6 December in Autism Research.

    Young people’s reports of their own anxiety correlate with measures of this brain signal, called the error-related negativity. Interestingly, parents’ reports on the same questionnaires do not.

  • Non-English-speaking, non-white populations get little attention when it comes to designing and testing autism treatments. A study of what Latino families see as important in early autism therapies suggests a need for cultural adjustments to make these therapies optimally effective. The study was published 29 November in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
  • Although the genes behind a specific trait are expected to act in pairs — one copy from each parent — a cell sometimes uses only one member of the pair. This ‘monoallelic’ expression, which has been associated with autism, appears to be widespread in brain cells. The dominance of a single copy of a gene can also be specific to cell type, according to findings published 10 November in BMC Genomics.
  • Minnesota has joined a few other U.S. states listing autism as an approved indication for medical marijuana. Although the state’s health department rejected adding the condition last year, health officials reversed course this year, citing two pending clinical trials and evidence of links between autism and the molecular pathways that cannabis affects, the Star Tribune reported 1 December.
  • Pregnant women who need medications have almost no information about the safety and effectiveness of drugs for their population. At the invitation of the U.S. federal government, women are now telling their stories of navigating a drug landscape with little evidence to point the way, STAT reported 5 December.

    The women describe not being able to get answers to questions about whether they should continue their antidepressants, and worrying about the safety of cough drops. Even when they take drugs for long-standing indications, such as antacids for acid reflux, the lack of evidence for safety during pregnancy makes the use of these drugs ‘off label.’

    The government is collecting women’s stories in public meetings, part of the work of a task force Congress created to seek ways to resolve these problems.

  • The four-letter DNA codebook has undergone an expansion. Researchers have created two more letters and coaxed bacteria into passing these new building blocks to their descendants. Even more remarkably, with the expanded code, the bacteria can create novel proteins, investigators reported 29 November in Nature.
  • Children on the spectrum in Qatar soon may have expanded sports opportunities, including swimming classes and horseback-riding lessons. Two Qatari groups have joined forces with the World Innovation Summit for Health to offer the programs. According to a 5 December statement from the Qatar Foundation, a partner in the collaboration, the agreement also opens the way for all involved to collaborate on more Qatar-based autism research.
  • 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].