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Spectrum: Autism Research News

September 28th

Power player

Autism researcher Beth Stevens has received a $625,000 fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation — a nonprofit that supports scientists, artists, teachers and entrepreneurs with “outstanding talent.”

The fellowship is the latest honor for Stevens, whose work on brain cells called microglia has created a buzz among autism researchers. In 2012, she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and in a couple of weeks she’ll deliver one of four presidential lectures at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

It’s been increasingly clear to us that Stevens is a star, and our reporter Nicholette Zeliadt wrote a colorful profile of her just a few days before the MacArthur Foundation announced the award.

MacArthur Foundation / 28 Sep 2015
Placebo predictors

The placebo effect plagues many a clinical trial, particularly in the field of autism. In some trials, nearly one in three children with the disorder show improvements from a placebo.

A new study, published last week in Translational Psychiatry, identifies factors associated with a placebo response in autism trials. One of these caught our attention: Children are more likely to show a response to a placebo if clinicians, rather than caregivers, gauge their behavior.

In a Viewpoint for Spectrum last month, behavioral scientist Bryan King at the University of Washington argued that researchers must do what they can to limit the placebo effect in autism trials. “But we would also do well to learn more about the effect’s active ingredient and how to turn up its volume,” he wrote. “Doing so could augment every intervention we choose to use.”

The new study may be a step in that direction.

Paper politics

To clarify the roles of authors on research papers, publishers are testing ‘digital badges’ — colorful cartoons that denote whether a researcher actually performed experiments or simply offered support.

There are 14 categories of researcher contribution, including writing, supervision and data visualization. Researchers, journal editors and funders collectively crafted the categories as part of the so-called ‘digital taxonomies’ project.

“We think it’s timely to have a bit more granularity around contributions to scholarly published work,” Liz Allen, a co-founder of the digital taxonomies project, told Nature on Monday.

So far, BioMed Central and Ubiquity Press are the only publishers using the badges.

Research revamp

The National Institutes of Health has doled out $144 million in grants to researchers studying environmental influences on child development, they announced Monday.

The funding supports projects for the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes study, or ECHO, a revamped version of the defunct National Children’s Study.

As we reported in August, autism researchers are skeptical about ECHO, in which scientists plan to pool ongoing investigations into environmental contributors to autism and other childhood disorders. They say the project is unlikely to live up to the initial promise of the National Children’s Study, which was disbanded last December after costs topped $1.3 billion.