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Spectrum: Autism Research News

June 6th

Antidepressant test

A new blood test can predict whether a person is likely to respond to certain antidepressant medications, according to a story in The Washington Post this week.

Conventional antidepressants, such as Prozac (fluoxetine) and Paxil (paroxetine), fail to provide relief from depression and anxiety for a significant portion of people who take them. A way to determine whether an antidepressant will work before an individual embarks on a course of the medicine could speed recovery.

Many people with autism take antidepressants, which have shown mixed results in reducing repetitive behaviors.

The blood test, described 11 May in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, measures two molecular markers of inflammation in the blood. Inflammation is associated with a reduced response to some commonly prescribed antidepressants, such as Lexapro (escitalopram) and Pamelor (nortriptyline). The researchers found that having levels of these markers above a certain threshold indicates that these drugs will not work for that individual. In such cases, doctors would recommend another treatment regimen.

Federally funded flop

Methodology disputes, ballooning costs and partisan politics led to the dissolution in 2014 of what was to be a massive federally funded study of environmental exposures and children’s health, according to an article in Undark magazine that dissects the demise of the endeavor.

In the National Children’s Study, mandated by an act signed in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, researchers were to follow 100,000 participants from conception to 21 years old to get at environmental risk factors for autism and other childhood conditions.

Study leaders spent $1.3 billion before National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins shut the project down.

A decision to rely on national representational sampling rather than recruiting prospective mothers from prenatal care clinics took “two years and a million dollars” to make, former project director Peter Scheidt, of George Washington University and the Children’s National Health System, told Undark.

The NIH is planning a new study, the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes, with more oversight and a more piecemeal approach to data collection. It is designed to focus on asthma, autism and obesity, among other developmental issues.

Meanwhile, a repository of data collected before the National Children’s Study was terminated remains available to researchers.

Undark / 25 May 2016
Budget boost

The NIH could receive an additional $2 billion in the 2017 fiscal year under a bill approved Tuesday by a Senate spending subcommittee. Under that scenario, the agency’s total budget would be $34.1 billion.

If Congress approves the boost — and it may not — 2017 would mark the second year in a row that the agency receives a large increase, following 12 years of flat funding.

The bill includes a $100 million increase in an allocation to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovation Neurotechnologies brain mapping project. That project’s total budget would tally to $250 million.

eLife funding

A journal called eLife, an open-access challenge to the elite journals Cell, Nature and Science, is set to receive a second large infusion of charitable funding to the tune of 25 million pounds (about $36 million), according to a news story in Nature last week.

The first round of 18 million pounds ($26 million) allowed the journal to make publication in eLife free for authors for the first five years. Most other open-access journals require authors to pay for publication of accepted papers.

The journal, which covers biomedicine and life sciences, has a total of 1,800 published papers, to its credit in its four-year history, including papers on brain function, neuronal circuits, synapses (neuronal junctions) and sensory processing.

Funding for both rounds comes from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the Wellcome Trust in London and the Max Planck Society in Berlin.

Huda Zoghbi, a Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist who studies Rett syndrome and genes essential for neurodevelopment, is an editor at eLife. “People ask me, ‘Why did you send it to eLife? You could have sent this to one of the top three journals,” Zoghbi told Nature. “I told them eLife is a top journal.”

Theatrical learning

Parents in two towns in New Jersey and staff at a program in Ohio developed by a Royal Shakespeare Company actor are offering theater classes to children with autism to boost their social skills, according to a recent essay in The Atlantic.

Research suggests that class exercises such as improvisation and role-playing give children on the spectrum a chance to learn the complex rules of social interaction in a safe setting.

A few studies have validated this approach. In one, published in February in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 17 children with autism attended a 40-hour theater program on 10 weekend afternoons. The children who completed the program were better at recognizing faces, understanding different perspectives and managing anxiety than were 13 children on the spectrum who did not take the theater classes.