Skip to main content

Spectrum: Autism Research News

November 30th

Reframing autism

There has been much discussion this year about whether a ‘spectrum’ accurately sums up the range of behaviors seen in autism. An op-ed this week in Quartz explores one possible pitfall of the spectrum mentality: that children at one end are closer to ‘normal.’

“This kind of sorting can obscure the real strengths that accompany many developmental disabilities,” writes Sarah Bauer, assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “Although autism is currently classified as a disability, it can also be considered a distinct learning style that impacts social behavior and communication.”

Bauer believes it’s high time the world updated its notion of normal. She also argues that doctors have a responsibility to inform parents that a diagnosis of autism “doesn’t mean there’s a problem that needs to be fixed.”

Like minds

Men and women differ in many ways, but new research suggests that brain structure isn’t one of them.

The finding, reported Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, quashes 200-year-old claims that researchers could eyeball differences between male and female brains.

“There is no one person that has all the male characteristics and another person that has all the female characteristics,” lead researcher Daphna Joel, professor of psychobiology at Tel Aviv University in Israel, told Science. “Or if they exist they are really, really rare to find.”

The finding is particularly interesting in the context of autism, which affects four boys for every girl. A few studies have hinted at structural differences between the brains of boys and girls with the condition. Some researchers suspect that girls are more resistant to the effects of small brain abnormalities than boys are.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences / 30 Nov 2015
Doctoral dilemma

The number of Ph.D.s doled out in the life sciences continues to climb. Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for academic positions.

An article in Nature this week explores the consequences of — and possible solutions to — the surplus of scientists entering a relatively stagnant job market.

One interesting solution is a vocational Ph.D. — a degree that prepares students for jobs in mouse-model development, machine learning or other specialized areas of research. Another approach is make sure people enter Ph.D. programs knowing their prospects in academia are low.

“Like ballet dancers or actors, if they chose to take it on knowing their chances of becoming a successful professor, then let them carry on,” Michael Teitelbaum, labor economist at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told Nature.

Nature / 02 Dec 2015
Ritalin warning

A review of data from 185 clinical trials investigating the effects of methylphenidate, better known as Ritalin, suggests the benefits of the widely used attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drug don’t always outweigh the risks.

The review, published by Cochrane, revealed only modest improvements in ADHD symptoms among children taking methylphenidate in the trials, which together included more than 12,000 children. At the same time, these children were more likely than those taking a placebo pill to have sleep problems and suppressed appetites.

“Our expectations of this treatment are probably greater than they should be,” Morris Zwi, a London-based child psychiatrist and a researcher on the study, said in a statement.

An estimated 2.7 million U.S. children take medication for ADHD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s likely that some of these children have autism, as up to 80 percent of children with autism also meet the criteria for ADHD.