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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Community Newsletter: Animal modeling, cannabis and autism, a new editor-in-chief

by  /  31 July 2022
Many mouths making conversation, with speech bubbles in red and blue.
Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Twitter can sometimes feel like a zoo, and this week, two behavior-modeling studies had our feeds wild with excitement.

Up first was a new preprint shared by Benjamin Cowley, a computational neuroscientist at Princeton University, in which he and his colleagues used a deep neural network, or a ‘deep net,’ to model the visual system of a fruit fly. “Deep nets are great at predicting visual neurons. Yet, they are unable to tell us which artificial neuron directly corresponds to a biological neuron… until now!” Cowley wrote.

His results showed “that visual projection neurons at the interface between the eye and brain form a distributed population code that collectively sculpts social behavior.

“Here, biological and artificial knockouts predict neural activity and distributed function in complex brain areas. I am dazzled,” tweeted Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York City.

Dan O’Shea, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California, was also excited about the paper, highlighting that “it underscores the tractability of the fly visual system.”

There were many other tweets we don’t have room to share, but they had one thing in common: big excitement about this work and its implications for the future of neuroscience.

Other fly-modeling work had Twitter buzzing, too — and this one also included mice. The team in question announced the release of a new dataset “from real-world behavioral neuroscience experiments.”

The dataset “consists of mouse (9 mil frames) and fly (4 mil frames) social interactions for studying behavioral representation learning!” tweeted Jennifer Sun, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Ann Kennedy, assistant professor of neuroscience at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, who contributed to the dataset and was featured in a Spectrum profile article this week, shared her excitement in a quote tweet.

This may sound like a far-out concept, but back-and-forths on Twitter can be peaceful, polite and productive. For proof, we offer up one such conversation sparked by Twitter user @drdebah, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Orleans in Louisiana, after she tweeted out information about participating in a survey on cannabis use in autism.

“Really interesting research area, but very much not a fan of the way some of the ‘demographic’ questions about autism are set up,” Twitter user @science_enby replied.

They went into greater detail in a string of tweets, bringing up such issues as the ranges available in response to a question asking when an autism diagnosis was received, tweeting, “I’d argue there’s a lot more difference between getting diagnosed at 3 vs 17 then there is between 75 and 85.”

@science_enby also pointed out issues with the responses available for the survey question asking respondents about support level, tweeting, “It’s really weird to see different autistic traits ascribed to different ‘support levels.’”

“I hear & receive all this feedback!” replied @drdebah, who responded with explanations but also promises to fix certain issues and clarify others in any write-ups about the study.

“Thanks for the responses! I definitely appreciate the difficulty of turning complex experiences into analyzable variables,” tweeted @science_enby in a final response.

Finally, the Society for Neuroscience announced the appointment of Sabine Kastner as the next editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Princeton Neuroscience Institute called the appointment “fantastic news for Sabine and the field!” in a quote tweet.

In reply, Nicole C. Rust, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, called Kastner an “excellent choice.”

That’s it for this week’s Community Newsletter! If you have any suggestions for interesting social posts you saw in the autism research sphere, feel free to send an email to [email protected].

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