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Spectrum: Autism Research News

January 15th

Social genome

Although social behaviors such as making eye contact can be traced to genetics, other factors bring together adolescents who share genetic commonalities. Results published 9 January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that social factors, such as the school children attend, can push them into one another’s paths, bridging the genetic connection.

The analysis of 5,500 adolescents also confirms that teenagers tend to share more genetic similarity with their friends than do two random people, no matter where in the genome the investigators looked. The genetics of a young person’s friends was even associated with their own educational attainment, but friends don’t show this genetic overlap for height.

Nonspeaking host

Carly Fleischmann, a nonspeaking woman with autism, was a guest host on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on 12 January. During her segment, the show’s name temporarily became “The Late Show with Carly Fleischmann,” Canada’s CTV News reported. Fleischmann, typed her questions into her computer, which then turned the text to voice.

She kicked off her interview of Colbert by welcoming him as the “former host” of the show and “the guy who has the worst impression of the president that I have ever heard.”

Microbiome brain

Some evidence suggests that a distinct population of microbes in the digestive system is linked to autism, but how the gut might affect the brain remains unclear. New findings may help clarify the connection. The work, published 10 January in Translational Psychiatry, ties the effects of diet on gut bacteria to brain structure.


CRISPR giant Jennifer Doudna and her research group participated in an “Ask Me Anything” event on the social media platform Reddit, in partnership with the National Human Genome Research Institute. Doudna and her team responded to questions from 1 to 3 p.m. EST on 18 January. You can read the responses here.

National Human Genome Research Institute / 18 Jan 2018
Infection evidence

New evidence ties maternal infection during pregnancy to autism in children. A study in a Lebanese population showed increased autism odds for children born to women who had an infection during pregnancy. The odds are lower in first- or second-born children compared with children born later, according to the findings, published 13 January in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Attention-deficit bias

Autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) share features, including a sex ratio skewed to boys. When girls have ADHD, the cause may be strong but as-yet unidentified genetic variants, according to findings published 1 December in Biological Psychiatry. Girls also are more likely to have co-occurring conditions such as autism and intellectual disability, suggesting a more varied presentation of their ADHD compared with boys.

Having a sister with ADHD increases odds that a child will have ADHD more so than does having a brother with the condition, the investigators found. Yet the same study also showed that that the main variants associated with ADHD don’t drive the skew, suggesting that some important genetic variants remain to be discovered.

Chatbot flop

Using artificial-intelligence technology, chatbots are intended to simulate human behavior, responding to conversations and behaving as a sort of virtual friend. Writing 14 January on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, one person on the spectrum who tried a free chatbot app found that the ‘companion’ became dismissive and random in its responses, and did nothing to ease her loneliness and anxiety.

Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism / 14 Jan 2018
Critical calcium

About a third of people with fragile X syndrome also have autism, suggesting common causal pathways. In research highlighting one of those possible pathways, investigators found that neurons developed using cells from boys with fragile X syndrome make less of a protein that regulates calcium entry into the cell. These neurons also have shortened extensions compared with those developed from control cells.

Blocking this protein in a mouse model of the condition restores the typical neuronal structure, the investigators reported 16 January in Science Signaling.

Job moves

Autism researcher Samuel Odom is stepping down from his position as director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He will continue at the institute as a senior research scientist, heading up the team of autism experts that he organized during his directorship, according to a 9 January statement from the institute. Child neuropsychology researcher Stephen Hooper began as interim director on 1 January.

News tips

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