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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Community Newsletter: Autism and the thalamus, recreational drug use in autistic people, new IACC members

by  /  11 July 2021
Speech bubble formed by a network of communication

Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Hello, and welcome to this week’s Community Newsletter! I’m your host, Chelsey B. Coombs, Spectrum’s engagement editor.

Our first tweet comes from Dheeraj Roy, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who highlighted his new study in Neuron on the role of the thalamus in autism and schizophrenia.

The thalamus is important in memory and learning, and previous studies have shown that genes linked to autism and schizophrenia are highly expressed in this brain region. Knocking down several of these genes in the thalamus in mice led to neuron hyperexcitability and memory problems, Roy and his colleagues found.

Specifically, a circuit between the anterodorsal region of the thalamus and another brain area called the retrosplenial cortex is necessary for memory encoding, the team showed. And a circuit between the anteroventral thalamus and retrosplenial cortex regulates memory specificity. Normalizing the hyperexcitability of the neurons in the thalamus eased the mice’s memory problems.

Chen Sun, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Montreal in Canada, said the paper was a tour de force.

Next up, we have a paper from The Lancet Psychiatry that examined tobacco smoking and substance use in autistic people ages 16 and older. Study author Elizabeth Weir, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, described the results in a thread.

Her team used data from an online survey that included a mix of quantitative questions and open-ended, qualitative ones, such as: “Please list any recreational substances/drugs you have used and how long you used them for. Please provide any information that you think may be relevant.”

Autistic people were almost nine times more likely than non-autistic people to say they used drugs to manage behavioral traits; some even indirectly referenced using drugs to ‘camouflage’ or mask their autism.

In findings that the authors describe as a first, autistic men were less likely to report smoking or using recreational drugs than non-autistic men, but there was no significant difference between autistic women and non-autistic women.

Some autistic people also reported being tricked into using or forced to use drugs.

“Clinicians should be aware of possible vulnerability related to substance use
. . . and should work cooperatively with patients to provide effective means of managing autistic patients’ behavioural, mental health, and physical health symptoms,” they wrote.

Robin van Kessel, assistant professor of international health at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, wrote that it was a “thorough, beautifully-written, well-deserved publication.”

Finally, I want to call out a Spectrum article by Laura Dattaro, “Federal autism committee names new members,” that is generating buzz on social media. The United States’ Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) — the group tasked with setting priorities for government-funded autism research and services — announced its newest cohort of members on 7 July. Seven of the public members are autistic, a “dramatic change” from past iterations of the IACC, says Sam Crane, legal director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and a returning IACC member. The IACC plans to meet virtually later this month.

That’s it for this week’s Spectrum 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 me at [email protected]. See you next week!

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