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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Spotted: Bright idea; IMFAR frenzy

by  /  15 May 2015

May 11th

Bright idea

What if you could control individual neurons in a living brain with a flash of blue light? The idea, now known as optogenetics, seemed absurd just a decade ago. Then Karl Deisseroth made it happen. A profile of the 43-year-old Stanford University psychiatrist in the 18 May issue of The New Yorker details his inspiring journey from dreamer to doyen, with adorable quotes from his neuroscientist-wife, Michelle Monje. “It’s like Beatlemania,” Monje says of her husband’s rock star status at neuroscience meetings. “I realized, I’m married to a Beatle. The nerdy Beatle.” Deisseroth also created CLARITY, a technique that renders postmortem brains transparent to reveal perfectly intact neurons.

IMFAR frenzy

The International Meeting for Autism Research kicked off yesterday in Salt Lake City, Utah. More than 2,000 autism researchers are there, and so are a lot of the people their work is designed to benefit. One of the attendees is 57-year-old author John Elder Robison, who has Asperger syndrome. “I am going to the conference in search of knowledge, but I also carry a message,” Robison wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday in New Scientist. “We want our dollars spent on research that will lead to better lives for those of us who live with autism today.”

Author overload

A study examining a tiny piece of the fruit fly genome made big waves this week because of its 1,014 authors. Named on the paper, published in the journal G3: Genes Genomes Genetics, are more than 900 undergrads who scoured sequences of Drosophila DNA for start, stop and splice sites. The students “do a significantly better job” than software programs, lead researcher Sarah Elgin, professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, told Genes to Genomes. Remarkably, the paper’s lengthy list of contributors is nothing compared with those on some physics papers. A 2012 paper on the Higgs boson has about 3,000 authors.

College crash

School isn’t easy for people with autism, and the difficulties mount when they enter college. A story that appeared Thursday in Vox suggests high schools are failing to properly prepare people with autism for post-secondary education. It also highlights programs aimed at easing the transition. “A lot of it is helping students acquire adequate interpersonal skills and self-advocacy,” says Gerard Hoefling, who works with the Autism Support Program at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Even freshmen without autism need a little help in these areas, Hoefling adds. But this need is “more nuanced” for students on the spectrum.