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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Community Newsletter: Null on biomarkers; dopamine; sleep issues; funding

by  /  22 January 2023
Speech bubble formed by a network of communication

Illustration by Laurène Boglio

The search for autism biomarkers continues, as some researchers on Twitter made plain this past week: There are “no candidate diagnostic #biomarkers for #neurodevelopmental disorders,” including autism, tweeted Sam Cortese, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, about his systematic review published in World Psychiatry earlier this month.

Cortese and his colleagues reviewed 780 studies and found no biomarkers that had been “reported in at least two independent studies providing evidence of sensitivity and specificity of at least 80%.” The null result echoes one we covered in a December issue of Community Newsletter.

“Won’t the threshold depend on how any potential biomaker is used in practice?” asked Seena Fazel, professor of forensic psychiatry at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, in regard to the 80 percent cutoff.

The same conclusions will be made in 2030 or 2050,” wrote Martin Plöderl, professor of psychiatry at Paracelsus Medical University in Salzburg, Austria, in a quote tweet.

Moving along, a new Nature study published last week reveals “a surprising role for dopamine as a teaching signal during free exploration” in mice, tweeted lead investigator Sandeep Robert Datta, professor of neurobiology at Harvard University.

Dopamine in the dorsolateral striatum, a brain region crucial for learning and performing movements, “fluctuates a ton during spontaneous behavior,” Datta explained, and those fluctuations “causally structure ongoing action, even without task structure or rewards.”

Björn Brembs, professor of neurogenetics at University of Regensburg in Germany, tweeted that this research, which he was already excited about after seeing it presented at Neuroscience 2022, “really does move the field forward.”

“Understanding how spontaneous behavior gets organized is absolutely essential to nail down as we move to wireless, freely-moving paradigms,” tweeted David Barack, presidential scholar in society and neuroscience at Columbia University in New York City.

Social media users chatted about another recent finding last week: Children with certain rare neurodevelopmental genetic conditions are more likely to have sleep disturbances than their unaffected siblings are, according to a Translational Psychiatry study published this month.

Those with sleep problems “were more likely to experience mental health difficulties,” including autism, tweeted study investigator Samuel Chawner, research fellow in psychology at Cardiff University in Wales. The results highlight “the potential for early intervention strategies for psychiatric risk informed by sleep profile,” Chawner added.

Lastly, the Autism Science Foundation “announced the recipients of its inaugural profound autism pilot grants.” The foundation awarded grants to four projects “examining sleep, neuropsychiatric regression, and self-injurious behaviors, as well as methods to improve access to communications systems for people with profound autism.”

Anne Roux, a director at The Policy Impact Project in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, tweeted “this focus moves us toward actually improving people’s lives.”

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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