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Spectrum: Autism Research News

October 31st

Athletic advantage

There are a lot of perks to participating in sports — the opportunity to make new friends and get some exercise among them. An article in this week’s Sports Illustrated highlights the special importance of athletics for children with autism.

The piece and an accompanying segment on “60 Minutes Sports” explore the social and personal advantages of participating in sports. Children with autism are twice as likely as those without the condition to be overweight. And exercise can reduce anxiety, a common problem among people with autism.

“If we can build up their bodies, we can build self-confidence, and that spills over into other areas of their life,” Heather Katz, director of training at the Boston Higashi School for children with autism, told Sports Illustrated.

In September, Spectrum covered the growing number of studies investigating the benefits of exercise in autism. The Sports Illustrated story spotlights several children with autism who have excelled in sports, including Anthony Ianni, the first Division I basketball player on the spectrum.

“I would never say sports should be part of all treatment plans,” Ianni, who attended Michigan State University, told the magazine. “But as a kid with autism, you might want to feel part of a community. You might want to be more active. You might want to work hard to get better at something you like to do. Sports rewards all that. Trust me, it does.”

Fair share

Should people who participate in genome sequencing studies have access to their data? If they did, who would be responsible for explaining any genetic risk factors that emerge? And what would people do with their genetic information?

These questions have no easy answers. Researchers are under no obligation to return data to study participants. But those who resist this reciprocity risk losing potential volunteers, argues Sarah Nelson, a graduate student at the University of Washington’s Genetic Analysis Center.

“If potential participants can obtain their genetic data from a growing number of commercial companies, they might turn their backs on traditional research studies altogether,” Nelson writes in a column for Nature published on Tuesday.

Robert Green, director of the Genomes2People Research Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, is studying how people deal with having access to their genetic data. He’s particularly interested in what happens when parents know their children’s risk factors, according to an NPR story published earlier this week. Of the 51 babies he has sequenced so far, 5 have mutations that could impact their health.

“We are looking for all sorts of unanticipated variations in DNA,” Green told NPR. “And we say right up front we don’t know what they all mean. We don’t know what they’re all going to mean for your baby.”

Mosaic mind

If you think all of your brain cells contain the same DNA, think again. An award-winning essay published Friday in Science entitled “One brain, many genomes” explains the origin and importance of so-called ‘somatic mutations.’ These mutations arise during development as cells divide.

“Imagine you were building a house and every brick was made by copying the previous brick rather than making all the bricks from the same original mold,” author Gilad Evrony, resident physician in pediatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said in a statement. “Inevitably, mistakes in DNA replication and other mutational forces accumulate and create imperfect copies.”

Evrony should know. As a graduate student in Christopher Walsh’s lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, he developed techniques for sequencing the genomes of individual brain cells. His work revealed a mosaic of mutations in the brain, some of which may play a role in autism.

Evrony’s work and his essay earned him the 2016 Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology, which was announced Friday.

Science / 04 Nov 2016
Hot air

A thorough review of studies investigating the effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for autism concludes that the treatment offers no benefits, only risks.

The review, published last month by the Cochrane Library, is a nail in the coffin for the fringe therapy, in which individuals inhale pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber. A 2009 study suggested the therapy could improve social interaction and language abilities in children with autism. But many experts were skeptical of the small study, funded by the International Hyperbarics Association.

The researchers involved in the new review did not include the 2009 study because it was not a randomized controlled trial. They omitted another 21 studies on similar grounds, and ended up with just one study that met their standards. Based on this one study, they found “no evidence that hyperbaric oxygen therapy improves core symptoms and associated symptoms of [autism].” The therapy can, however, cause ear damage.

Cochrane reviews have also cast doubt on chelation therapy and gluten-free, casein-free diets for autism.

Back to basics

The goal of neuroscience is to understand the brain. This understanding could lead to treatments for a range of psychiatric conditions, such as autism. But not instantly.

A joint issue of Nature Neuroscience and Nature Medicine highlights basic neuroscience pursuits that may yield treatments years from now, while acknowledging a demand for solutions today.

“In a rush to advance translational research, we risk abandoning the basics learned at the bench,” an editorial in the special issue reads. “Basic research is indispensable for understanding psychiatric disorders, as it provides the appropriate biological context in which to interpret potential disease mechanisms.”

Several pieces in the special issue are relevant to autism researchers, including a commentary on the natural history of the condition and a review about using genetics to tailor treatments.

Nature Neuroscience / 26 Oct 2016
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