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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Community Newsletter: Neuroscience game changers, genetics meeting highlights

by  /  25 September 2022
Two globe and chat bubble hybrids overlap against a blue background.
burak çakmak / Adobe Stock

The September equinox, when the Earth’s tilt causes nearly equal day and night across the globe, happened last week. As the Earth kept on turning, these Twitter threads had heads spinning about two influential studies, while folks from around the globe shared thoughts and images from the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics (WCPG).

This preprint has “severe consequences to the field of neuroscience,” tweeted Camille Testard, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and one of the study investigators.

Brain activity that corresponds to a specific cognitive process does not necessarily indicate a true connection, according to Testard’s study, which showed a statistically significant association between monkeys’ performance on cognitive tests and brain regions that are known to not be involved in that particular process. This finding “suggests that non-necessary cognitive signals are prevalent in the cerebral cortex of primates during task performance, challenging one of the fundamental assumptions of cognitive neurophysiology.”

The neurotwitter community responded in too large a number to share it all, but here are some highlights.

“Really cool and unsettling findings!” tweeted Scott Tyler, a computational biologist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. “Would your interpretation be that these regions that are non-required for the task of interest, are required for secondary tasks not monitored (or even noticed?) that are correlated actions?” he asked.

Testard replied that this was one potential explanation among many, saying “our point is that we have to be aware of this phenomena and future work should investigate why.”

“My colleagues @CamilleTestard and @seb_trem put the saw to the foundation of systems neuroscience,” tweeted Konrad Kording, professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some had a more reserved reaction to the paper. “I think neuroscientists understand that correlation isn’t causation and neural tuning to tasks doesn’t mean those neurons are functionally required . . .” tweeted Ella Batty, computational neuroscientist at Harvard University.

Do you think the paper represents a potential revolution in neuroscience? Let us know in the comments.

Another “potential game changer,” shared by John Lukens, a neuroimmunologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, caught our attention this week, this one for the treatment of neurological diseases.

The Nature study showed a way to inhibit a pathway called mTOR in only brain tissue, minimizing the chances of side effects in non-brain tissue. This well-known cancer pathway is overactive in several forms of autism and related conditions.

“Such a brilliant strategy,” tweeted Steven Shuken, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Gygi Laboratory at Harvard University.

Next up, we’re taking a virtual tour via tweet of the WCPG, which took place 13 to 17 September in Florence, Italy. The WCPG is an international scientific meeting for research in psychiatric genetics and related areas, featuring participation from experts in genetics, neuroscience and psychiatry from around the world.

Jakob Grove, associate professor of biomedicine at Aarhus University in Denmark, presented updated findings from his genome-wide association study to identify regions in the genome that harbor risk factors for autism, according to this tweet from Tinca Polderman, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Amsterdam UMC in the Netherlands. Grove’s new work identifies 12 regions of the genome harboring autism-specific variants, an increase from the 5 autism-specific regions he and his colleagues reported in 2019.

Great findings presented by @jakob_grove from the updated autism PGC, positive direction and progress but still a way to go,” tweeted Jack Underwood, a clinical research fellow at Cardiff University in Wales.

Next up is a thread from Veera Rajagopal, a scientist at the biotechnology company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in Tarrytown, New York, who noticed a theme in some of the research being presented: “using the knowledge of biological pathways to get better insights into genetic associations.”

Kristen Brennand, professor of psychiatry and genetics at Yale University, called the thread a thoughtful one that “synthesizes a number of talks hinting at convergence in psychiatric genetics.”

Next stop on our virtual tour: some pictures from the poster hall.

“Come and see @JFGUnderwood’s work . . . on polygenic scores in autism and their relationship to mental health phenotypes,” tweeted Kimberley Kendall, psychosis and genetics researcher at Cardiff University.

“If you are interested in the autism polygenic score and how it relates to ASD diagnosis and traits, comorbid mental health, and general psychopathology, come see my poster today,” tweeted Melanie de Wit, a graduate student in developmental psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Beyond the research, mingling at a reception is a big highlight for meetings, and as Sarah Marzi, professor at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, put it, “#WCPG2022 picked an alright venue for the networking reception.”

Eventually, it’s time to say arrivederci, often with a goodbye tweet, like this one from Jacob Vorstman, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Canada, who wrote, “What a blessing to be able to reconnect with so many colleagues in person again.”

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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