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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Community Newsletter: Human pluripotent stem cells, a prediction algorithm challenge, autistic perspectives

by  /  17 April 2022
Many mouths making conversation, with speech bubbles in red and blue.
Illustration by Laurène Boglio

This week, Twitter talked up a new Nature paper on using small molecules to generate human pluripotent stem cells. In it, Hongkui Deng, professor of immunology at Peking University in China, and his colleagues demonstrate a new approach to dedifferentiate human somatic cells back into pluripotent stem cells via an ‘intermediate plastic state.’

“This study lays foundations for developing regenerative therapeutic strategies that use well-defined chemicals to change cell fates in humans,” Deng and his colleagues wrote.

Jian Shu, associate member at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a former member of Deng’s lab, called it “a landmark work,” building on 10 years of effort across different lab generations.

Remarkable achievement,” tweeted Micha Sam Brickman Raredon, a postdoctoral researcher in biomedical engineering at Yale University.

Colwyn Headley, a postdoctoral scholar in cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University in California, tacked a ‘mind blown’ emoji onto his retweet of Shu’s comment.

Gaël Varoquaux, research director at the National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology in France, tweeted an eight-part thread about an “important paper” that he and his colleagues published on the use of brain imaging in search of autism biomarkers. The team served up preprocessed anatomical and functional magnetic resonance imaging data from more than 2,000 people in an international challenge and evaluated 146 prediction algorithms they received in response.

Lessons learned from the exercise? The best predictions come from simple models and draw on functional, not anatomical, data; large sample sizes matter more than “fancy algorithms”; and overfitting is rampant in the field. “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess,” Varoquaux quips.

“These studies never compare autism with other neurodevelopmental conditions, such as DLD [developmental language disorder]. So even if they can differentiate those with autism diagnosis from controls, we have no idea of specificity,” Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, tweeted in a reply.

Autistic self-advocate and doctoral student Morénike Giwa Onaiwu tweeted about the addition of autistic voices at the Interagency Autism Committee meeting this past week. “I asked you to share your perspectives, and you really came through,” she wrote.

The unmet health-care needs of autistic people is a frequent cri de coeur on Twitter. In an attempt to answer those pleas, Emily Hotez, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, announced this week the initial charter of the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health. The research network aims to “support innovative life-course intervention research that promotes optimal health and well-being across the lifespan of autistic individuals in six key areas,” ranging from primary care to genetics.

And lastly, Spectrum’s story last week on why autism therapies have an evidence problem sparked some conversation on social media. “When autism advocates have for a long time been describing interventions like ABA as analogous to conversion therapy, it is interesting to see this perspective from the scientists,” tweeted Brendan Halpin, a specialist in sociology at the University of Limerick in Ireland.

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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