Smart genes; Neanderthal mini-brains; diabetes link and more

Autism and intelligence share genetic variants, researchers grow Neanderthal mini-brains and see overlap with autism, and maternal diabetes is an autism risk factor.

By Emily Willingham
29 June 2018 | 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.
  • Gene variants linked to higher intelligence are strongly associated with autism, according to a large study published 25 June in Nature Genetics. Variants related to intelligence are also linked to reduced odds of schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

    The variants are expressed at high levels in the hippocampus, a memory region that plays a role in autism.

  • What could go wrong? With access to ancient human DNA and the advent of the gene editor CRISPR, it was only a matter of time until researchers started editing Neanderthal genes into laboratory-created ‘mini-brains’ to see what would happen. Efforts to create ‘Neanderthal minds’ were described 20 June in Science.

    Autism researcher Alysson Muotri of the University of California, San Diego, says some of the features of Neanderthal brain development mirror what’s seen in the brains of children with autism. “I don’t want families to conclude that I’m comparing autistic kids to Neanderthals, but it’s an important observation,” he told Science, saying that these changes are linked to differences in social development.

  • A maternal diabetes diagnosis by the 26th week of pregnancy is tied to increased autism odds in the child, according to findings published 23 June in JAMA. The increase is present for both type 1 and 2 diabetes and for gestational diabetes, extending previous findings tying gestational diabetes to autism risk.
  • A gene variant tied to autism and intellectual disability affects nerve-cell development unexpectedly early, researchers reported 21 June in Stem Cell Reports. This variant of GRIN2B has typically been studied in mature neurons in rodents. But here, researchers coaxed skin cells from people carrying the variant to develop into neurons and found effects even at the neuronal stem-cell stage.
  • CRISPR-based delivery of gene-editing molecules into the brains of mice with a mutation that leads to fragile X syndrome eases the animals’ repetitive behaviors. In findings published 25 June in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the researchers report that their system, CRISPR-Gold, edits all cell types in the brain.
  • Neuroticism, the tendency to respond to situations with negative emotions, is a risk factor for depression and schizophrenia, diagnostic cousins of autism. The explanation could be in the genes. An analysis of 449,484 human genomes shows that neuroticism-related variants are associated with both depression and schizophrenia, according to results published 25 June in Nature Genetics.
  • China and the United States are set to involve science in their growing trade war beginning on 6 July. That’s the day the two nations start taxing scientific-instrument parts and other tools of scientific research, escalating the cost of doing science in both countries, Nature reported 22 June.
  • African scientists now have a preprint site exclusively for them. The founders of AfricArXiv hope it boosts the visibility of African science and facilitates collaborations, Nature reported 25 June. Researchers can post reports, datasets and code, and all African languages are welcome.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is fast-tracking drugs to market at the same time as the pharmaceutical industry supports most of the agency’s budget for scientific reviews, ProPublica reported 26 June. The fast-tracked candidates tend to be expensive with “significant side effects and unproven health benefits,” ProPublica says.

    Among these ‘side effects’ is death. A couple of fast-tracked drugs, one for gout and another for Parkinson’s disease, are both tied to increased mortality risk and received approval despite failing in most clinical trials, ProPublica reported.

  • An intervention for elementary-school students with autism showed success in a classroom trial. The program, called Social Communication, Emotional Regulation, and Transactional Support, targets social and emotional function. The findings were published 25 June in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
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