Wi-Fi flap; obsessive-compulsive link; brain catalog and more

Two researchers balk at talk that Wi-Fi and autism are linked, changes in an autism risk gene are tied to obsessive-compulsive traits in three species, and scientists plan to conduct a census of all of the brain’s cell types.

By Emily Willingham
27 October 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.
  • When a May 2017 review in Child Development linked Wi-Fi exposure to features of autism, the resulting widespread media coverage alarmed some researchers, BuzzFeed reported 23 October. Two investigators published a highly critical response on 19 October in PeerJ, calling claims of an association “devoid of merit.”

    Dorothy Bishop and David Robert Grimes, the two University of Oxford academics who took the original publication to task, do not mince words in their editorial, saying that the review should not be conferred “a scientific veneer of legitimacy.” A note in their editorial says that Child Development will publish a shorter version of their commentary in 2018.

  • The autism gene candidate NRXN1 may have a crossover role in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Changes in the sequences of NRXN1 (along with other genes involved in neuron communication) are linked to features of OCD in people, mice and dogs. Researchers published their cross-species findings 17 October in Nature Communications.
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis involves the destruction of motor neurons, which is not a feature of autism. Yet people with the motor neuron condition are 10 times more likely to have a relative with autism than are those in the general population, researchers reported 16 October in JAMA Neurology. An accompanying editorial speculates that neural network disruption might be the common factor.
  • Researchers who work with cell lines — taken from a starter cell of a specific tissue type — may already know that contamination is a problem. What has remained unclear is how big the problem is. Investigators reported 12 October in PLOS ONE that 32,755 published studies have relied on misidentified cell lines, a number that balloons to an estimated half million with the inclusion of papers that have cited these studies.
  • Mutations associated with autism often arise in noncoding regions of DNA — those that do not code for protein. Many of these regions regulate gene expression. A new database, EpiDenovo, offers a searchable catalog of changes in these regulatory regions, with a special focus on the embryonic brain, the catalog’s creators reported 10 October in Nucleic Acids Research.
  • Teens with autism have surprised researchers by reacting more expressively to funny or disgusting videos than do their typically developing peers. In contrast to researcher expectations, adolescents on the spectrum watching the videos alone in a room unleashed big grins and grossed-out faces, whereas typically developing teens reacted far less obviously. The results appeared 10 October in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

    The investigators speculate that even though all of the teens watched the videos alone in a room, the typical adolescents likely were still aware of being monitored and may have restrained their reactions accordingly.

  • The National Institutes of Health is creating a parts catalog for the brain. With 11 grants funding a network of collaborating centers and laboratories, the goal is to tease out cell types in mouse, human and monkey brains. The research community will have access to all of this cell census data, the institute announced 23 October.

    The collaboration aims to build a digital 3-D mouse brain that includes the molecular, anatomical and functional features of the real thing. Creating a similar reference human brain is also on the list of goals for the project, which is part of the ambitious BRAIN Initiative.

  • Why does a James Joyce novel have a heartbeat? The book and its steady rhythm appear in an installation by Dawn-joy Leong. Leong is one of many artists with autism exhibiting in “Neurodiverse-City,” part of The Big Anxiety art festival in Sydney, Australia. The book’s beat is a recording from the heart of Leong’s rescue greyhound, honoring the dog’s ability to relax, anxiety-free, in unusual places, The Conversation reported on 22 October.
  • Mutations in the 22q13 chromosomal region affect the SHANK3 gene, which is associated with Phelan-McDermid syndrome. People with this syndrome, many of whom also have autism, struggle with understanding and producing spoken language. Now researchers have shown that rats with one nonfunctional SHANK3 copy have a reduced ability to detect sounds in general, not only those related to speech. The findings were published 20 October in Autism Research.
  • To disclose or not to disclose? Many an adult with autism has struggled with that question. New findings suggest that neurotypical people have a more favorable first impression of a person with autism if they know that person’s diagnosis than if they do not. Neurotypical participants also made more favorable first impressions on their peers if they were mislabeled as having autism, researchers reported 17 October in Autism.

    How much an observer knows about autism also makes a difference: The more informed a study participant was, the more positive his initial reactions were to people whose autism diagnosis had been disclosed.

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