from the world's big
Prior to COVID-19, 45% of people with intellectual disabilities reported feeling lonely.
My brother was supposed to move into his first "independent" home in mid-March. In his late 20s, and a person with an intellectual disability, he had finally gathered up the courage and the will to move out of our family home and live in a group home.
Groundbreaking neurological research on songbirds provides insight on human learned behavior and speech.
- Scientists recently implanted a false memory into the brains of young zebra finches, teaching them a melody they had never heard before.
- By stimulating certain neural circuits in the male birds' brains, researchers taught them courtship songs bypassing the lessons of an adult tutor.
- Scientists hope this research expands our knowledge of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.
The anatomy of bird 'inception'<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ec72f3a2e728a0ee4bbecd080ab5cc7f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/TaC6D1cW1Hs?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>To test whether manipulating certain neural circuits could implant behavioral-goal memories, the researchers raised young male birds without any social or auditory experience gained through adult song tutors. </p><p>Typically, young male zebra finches learn to sing a mating song from their father or another adult tutor. The finches use their song to court female birds in a behavior that is called "directed singing." Naturally, the birds spend a great deal of time practicing their song in private so they are ready to swoop in and serenade a female when the opportunity arises. </p><p>Researchers optically tutored the finches using light pulses that stimulated certain neural circuits, which were designed to mimic short song elements. This "opto-tutoring" in the young birds shaped the temporal structure of their mating song in adulthood by imprinting "memories" of the song into the birds' brain, bypassing the tutor's lessons. The finches sang the courtship songs that corresponded to the duration of time light had kept the neurons active. Birds that received shorter pulses sang songs with a shorter duration, and those that received extended pulses held their melodies longer. </p><p>Interestingly, the researchers found that opto-tutored male birds grasped the social norms of singing. Like regularly tutored birds, they practiced their mating song when alone and, when presented with a female finch to woo, they performed using the shorter and extended notes they learned through the false memory implantation.</p><p>While the researchers were able to imprint the duration of syllables in the birds' memories, that isn't everything that they need to learn in the song. There are other important characteristics that a zebra finch needs to nail, including pitch and correctly ordering the syllables. Next the researchers want to identify the circuits that carry that other information, and investigate the ways to encode those memories.</p>
Human Implications<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjA2MTAyOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNDc4ODI1M30.hOJ6Ss6B38RGFMbYZWptoBreY1byF93CgB64UCC9s6k/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=107%2C169%2C27%2C95&height=700" id="24b6c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d68b68b4f1722fbcb7b9eaf048b79baf" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons<p>The groundbreaking study could potentially serve as a blueprint for discovering how genetic and social environments influence neural circuits over time.</p><p>"This is the first time we have confirmed brain regions that encode behavioral-goal memories — those memories that guide us when we want to imitate anything from speech to learning the piano," said <a href="http://profiles.utsouthwestern.edu/profile/134757/todd-roberts.html" target="_blank">Dr. Todd Roberts</a>, a neuroscientist with UT Southwestern's <a href="https://utswmed.org/odonnell/" target="_blank">O'Donnell Brain Institute in a press release.</a> "The findings enabled us to implant these memories into the birds and guide the learning of their song."</p><p>Because the zebra finches vocal development process is similar to humans, this knowledge might help us better understand the mechanisms of human speech and language learning. The hope is that someday it will be used to target certain speech genes that are disrupted in people with neurological conditions that affect vocalization, such as autism. Not only that, but it could be used to help kids understand other social patterns and cues. </p><p>Of course, the neural pathways of the human mind are a great deal more complex than the circuitry of a songbird's brain. While this research points us in the right direction on where to look for more information on neurodevelopmental disorders, it will be a while before science can imprint the human mind with false memories via light pulse. </p>
Autism is a widely misunderstood condition surrounded by falsehoods, half-truths, and cultural assumptions.
- Autism-spectrum disorder covers a wide range of neurodevelopmental conditions that are highly individualized.
- The prevalence of autism continues to increase in the United States, not due to vaccines but increased awareness and improved diagnosis.
- Autism awareness is crucial as treatment strategies are more effective if accessed early.
1) What is autism?<p><a href="https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html" target="_blank">Autism is a neurodevelopment disability</a>. People with autism have difficulty communicating or interacting socially and may engage in repetitive behaviors. They interact, behave, and learn in unique ways. Their behaviors may include avoiding eye contact, having trouble processing everyday sensory intake, showing no interest in make-believe games, and not enjoying physical contact such as hugging.</p><p>It's considered a <a href="https://www.autism-society.org/what-is/" target="_blank">spectrum condition</a> because it affects people differently (hence the phrase "on the spectrum"). No two people will display identical conditions nor require the same support. Some autistic people can live healthy, independent lives, while others require more extensive care and support.</p><p>Originally, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorized autism under the umbrella term "pervasive developmental disorder." But when the manual was updated to its fifth edition in 2013, it revised its criteria for autism. The category is now "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6UTUjoNDxA" target="_blank">autism-spectrum disorder</a>," and it combines conditions that used to be diagnosed separately. These include autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive development disorders not otherwise specified (or PDD-NOS).</p><p>There is no lab test, like a blood test or genetic screening, available to determine if someone has an autistic-spectrum disorder. Medical professionals must make the determination based on behavior and development observations.</p>
2) What causes autism?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f2887a6319b5b5f8219d7e6bf258395c"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/FHNwXicW3X0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Scientists don't know what exactly causes autism. Current investigations suggest <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/autism-genetic-environmental" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a genetic origin</a>, though environmental factors have not been ruled out entirely.</p><p>While it's difficult to untangle the interplay between genes and the environment, a longitudinal cohort study published in <em><a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2737582" target="_blank">JAMA Psychiatry</a></em> has provided the largest attempt so far. Researchers examined health data of more than 22,000 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from five countries. They estimated the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/autism-genetics?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1" target="_self">heritability of ASD to be approximately 80 percent</a>. They also found maternal effects — that is, the idea that the condition of the mother's body makes a child more likely to develop autism — to be insignificant. </p><p>"Although families are often most concerned about environmental risk factors for autism, the reality is that genetic factors play a much larger role overall," Andrew Adesman, director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, told <em><a href="https://consumer.healthday.com/cognitive-health-information-26/autism-news-51/autism-largely-caused-by-genetics-not-environment-study-748432.html" target="_blank">HealthDay News</a></em>. (Dr. Adesman was not involved in the study.)</p><p>It remains unclear how genes linked to autism are being activated, and researchers are quick to note that we can't altogether ignore potential environmental factors. After all, they are the ones we can potentially adjust or learn to avoid, and even if genes play the dominant role, the environment could still activate them.</p><p><a href="https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/autism/index.cfm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences</a> lists the following as associated with autism:</p> <ul> <li>advanced parental age at time of conception;</li> <li>prenatal exposure to air pollution or certain pesticides;</li> <li>maternal obesity, diabetes, or immune system disorders;</li> <li>extreme prematurity or very low birth weight; and</li> <li>any birth difficulty leading to periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby's brain.</li> </ul> <p>Other studies have found connections between autism and <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/autism-processed-foods?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1" target="_self">high levels of processed foods</a> in maternal diets, as well as an absence of <a href="https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/researchers-may-have-found-what-causes-autism-and-even-how-to-prevent-it" target="_self">certain gut bacteria</a>.</p><p>Please note: No one claims these environmental factors cause autism, but they do appear to increase a child's risk of developing it when combined with unfavorable genetic factors.</p>
3) Are rates of autism increasing?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0OTkyNC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5OTkyNzUxNX0.MvXCxIDmT00JMMxb0-rMfpmY7CV-F-eDdmKDBx6qD9U/img.png?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C335%2C0%2C152&height=700" id="db369" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b0337dbec02e9616c4a78cafaea17afe" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the number of people with autistic-spectrum disorder in the world. (Source: IHME/Our World in Data)<p>Yes, they are.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/ss/ss6706a1.htm" target="_blank">CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network</a> estimates the prevalence of autism among 8-year-old children in the U.S. Its estimates are based on more than 300,000 children across the U.S., with updates released every two years. </p><p>In 2016, the CDC estimated the prevalence of autism to be 1 in 68 children. By 2018, about 1 in 59 children were identified as autistic. That's a rate <a href="https://www.autism-society.org/what-is/" target="_blank">twice as high as 2004</a> (1 in 125).</p><p>Worldwide, the trend is similar. According to <a href="https://ourworldindata.org/neurodevelopmental-disorders" target="_blank">the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation</a>, in 2014 17.92 million people were estimated to have autism. By 2016, the number had grown to 18.30. As in the United States, <a href="https://www.autismspeaks.org/autism-facts-and-figures" target="_blank">boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed as autistic</a>.</p>
4) What is causing this rising prevalence?<p>Scientists aren't sure why the numbers keep climbing, but they know it's not something we <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/science-says-fluoride-water-good-kids-so-why-are-these-n920851" target="_blank">added to the water</a>. The likely answer is increased awareness and improved diagnosis.</p><p>For example, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/addm-community-report/differences-in-children.html" target="_blank">white children are identified as autistic</a> more often than black or Hispanic children, but the reason for this is not genetic. Rather, income, a lack of healthcare access, and non-English primary language are all cited reasons for the discrepancy. As these barriers are reduced, the gap has shrunk.</p><p>"Autism prevalence among black and Hispanic children is approaching that of white children," Stuart Shapira, associate director for science at CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Development Disabilities, said in <a href="https://www.autism-society.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/2018-CDC-Update-Press-Release.pdf" target="_blank">a release</a>. "The higher number of black and Hispanic children now being identified with autism could be due to more effective outreach in minority communities and increased efforts to have all children screened for autism so they can get the services they need."</p><p>States with more extensive outreach services report <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-real-reasons-autism-rates-are-up-in-the-u-s/" target="_blank">higher a prevalence of autism among children</a>, too. New Jersey has the highest reported prevalence, but it furnishes extensive resources for professionals and support services. Conversely, the rural state of Alabama reports the lowest prevalence in the nation.</p><p>And let's remember that Asperger's syndrome and other disorders on the spectrum have been folded into a single diagnosis. As such, the number of children being diagnosed under a more cohesive criteria may bolster numbers previously spread out over distinct conditions.</p>
5) Do vaccines cause autism?<div id="ca4b1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="QBI0F81580924614"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="449525268529815552" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!</div> — Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)<a href="https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/statuses/449525268529815552">1396010150.0</a></blockquote></div><p>No, they do not.</p><p>This isn't news, but there remains a lot of doubt and confusion. To pick one notable <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/anti-vaccination?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1" target="_self">anti-vaxxer</a>, President Donald Trump recently walked back this <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-26/trump-backs-vaccines-amid-measles-outbreak-drops-autism-claims" target="_blank">2014 tweet linking autism to vaccines</a> but still claims that too many vaccines in too short a time frame could have caused the rise in autism rates. He has also considered establishing a special autism commission to investigate this thoroughly-vetted practice.</p><p><a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/vaccines-autism?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2" target="_self">A 2019 Danish cohort study</a> look at the medical histories of more than half a million children born between 1999 and 2010. The researchers found no link between autism and the MMR vaccine (a vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella). They also found no increased risk of the vaccine triggering autism in susceptible subgroups.</p><p>This is just one of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html" target="_blank">many such studies</a> that have failed to link the two. So again: Vaccines do not cause autism.</p>
6) Is there a cure for autism?<p>No, there is no cure for autism, but the question — often phrased in this manner — is misleading. </p><p>Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, not a disease. It seems unlikely that we'll ever cure it with a pill; however, therapies and interventions have been developed to assist individuals and families addressing the challenges of living with autism.</p><p>"Intervention can help to lessen disruptive behaviors, and education can teach self-help skills for greater independence," writes <a href="https://www.autism-society.org/living-with-autism/treatment-options/" target="_blank">the Autism Society</a>. "<em>But just as there is no one symptom or behavior that identifies people with autism, there is no single treatment that will be effective for everyone on the spectrum.</em>" [Emphasis original.]</p><p><a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/can-autism-be-cured#current-treatments" target="_blank">Treatment strategies</a> can include social skills training, speech therapy, cognitive behavioral therapies, occupational therapy, family service plans, and individualized education plans. Which psychosocial interventions are selected will depend on the individual's strengths and weaknesses. </p><p>Biomedical interventions have been proposed and utilized, but <a href="https://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/media-centre/position-statements/interventions.aspx" target="_blank">the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence</a> has ruled out many of them. In children, for example, they recommend never using chelation, secretin, or hyperbaric-oxygen therapies.</p><p>While treatment strategies will vary based on the individual's needs, they are all most effective if they are accessed as soon as possible.</p><p>"The earlier a child with autism is diagnosed and connected to services, the better," Coleen Boyle, director of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, told <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/spike-in-autism-numbers-might-reflect-rise-in-awareness/" target="_blank"><em>Scientific American</em></a>. "Our message to parents is, if you have a concern about how your child learns, plays, speaks, acts or moves, take action. Don't wait."</p>
7) What does the future hold for autism?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ecaa911f242aaadacd388715f73fb244"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/hjeBM95Nft0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The future looks bright. A drive toward autism awareness means more children are more likely to be diagnosed younger so they can begin therapies sooner. More communities are developing the resources necessary to support individuals and families living with autism. And a cultural shift toward neurodiversity has begun to lessen the stigma surrounding autism-spectrum disorders and other mental health conditions.</p><p>Even the increased prevalence of autism, which seems scary as a raw number, is ultimately a positive trend. The more young children diagnosed, the sooner their families can connect with the support and resources they need.</p><p>Researchers continue to look into the genetic causes of autism, too. They have begun to <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/discovery-of-18-new-autism-linked-genes-may-point-to-new-treatments/" target="_blank">identify the genes linked to autism</a> and to understand the relationship between autism, hereditable genes and <em>de novo</em> mutations. Revelations that may lead to new treatments and advancements in personalized medicine.</p><p>"In essence, that is personalized medicine, that is taking the genetic finding and determining what is the logical treatment and matching that patient up with an appropriate drug," <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjeBM95Nft0" target="_blank">said Jonathan Sebat</a>, chief of the Beyster Center for Molecular Genomics of Neuropsychiatric Diseases. "If we can find a few compounds that modulate neurodevelopment in the way that we want it to, and we can understand real disease mutations and how they respond to these drugs, then that's the beginning of precision medicine."</p><p>With improved awareness, dispelled half-truths, and scientists working toward new treatment options, the future may be very bright indeed.</p>
The study — which involved more than 2 million children — is the largest of its kind.
- The study involved more than 2 million children born in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Israel, and Western Australia.
- The results indicated that inherited genes accounted for about 80 percent of the risk of developing autism spectrum disorder.
- Still, it remains unclear which genes are at play in contributing to autism, and also how environmental risk factors contribute to the disorder.
The more we learn about the microbiome, the more the pieces are fitting together.
- A new study from the University of Central Florida makes the case for the emerging connection of autism and the human microbiome.
- High levels of Propionic Acid (PPA), used in processed foods to extend shelf life, reduces neuronal development in fetal brains.
- While more research is needed, this is another step in fully understanding the consequences of poor nutrition.
Could Autism Be Caused by Gut Microbes? | Dr. Emeran Mayer<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="51dee99c5c7dea7b751e3cf672a32f93"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/hczbp0-v4kI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The research team notes that thousands of genes are associated with ASD. While there is no singular likely culprit — they believe it is an interplay between genetic and environmental forces — they focused on maternal immune system abnormalities. Naser, who specializes in gastroenterology research, homed in on PPA as he had previously observed high levels of this carboxylic acid in stool samples of children with autism. </p><p>Excessive PPA reduces the number of neurons in the brain while simultaneously overproducing glial cells, resulting in inflammation, a marker of autism. Increased amounts of PPA damage neuronal pathways that allow the brain to communicate with the body. This toxic cocktail matches the symptoms of autism: repetitive behaviors, mobility issues, trouble communicating with others. </p><p>PPA naturally occurs in the human microbiome. Increased amounts of the acid, consumed by mothers by way of processed foods, appears to have a negative effect on their children. Increased PPA crosses into the fetus, potentially stunting neuronal development, which could aid in triggering the cascading effects that lead to the spectrum. </p><p>The acid was first discovered in 1844 by Austrian chemist, Johann Gottlieb, who noticed it in degraded sugar products. Isolated, it gives off the scent of unpleasant body odor. Manufactured, however, it is used to stop molding in animal feed, as well as human food products, <a href="http://msdssearch.dow.com/PublishedLiteratureDOWCOM/dh_096d/0901b8038096db9e.pdf?filepath%20=productsafety/pdfs/noreg/233-00419.pdf&fromPage=GetDoc" target="_blank">including</a> grains, baked goods, and cheese. It is approved for usage in the EU, USA, Australia, and New Zealand.</p>
Autistic child attends the World Autism Awareness Day 2019 celebrations on April 2, 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo credit: Mohd Samsul Mohd Said / Getty Images<p>Previous research has linked too much PPA with everything from nose and throat irritation to birth defects and cancer (in rats). While it is generally considered low in toxicity if swallowed, this study from UCF suggests that its effects on the maternal microbiome is far greater than previously imagined. It is, according to the researchers, only a first step, but an important one:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This research is only the first step towards better understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder. But we have confidence we are on the right track to finally uncovering autism etiology."</p><p>There is no benefit without cost. The low health cost of vaccines, for example — some injuries compared to untold millions of lives saved — seems a worthwhile tradeoff.</p><p>The high cost of processed foods does not seem to be worth the tradeoff, however. Convenience food is a market creation, not an evolution in good nutrition. Bread should not last for weeks on a shelf. Animals should not be fattened with low-nutrition foodstuffs, especially if the chemistry involved in producing it is ultimately harming our species.</p><p>These are the real costs of our agricultural system, which is having a direct, negative impact on our microbiomes. The research might not provide the answers that we're predisposed to believing, but science is not about popularity of responses. PPA might not be <em>the</em> cause of autism, and this research requires follow-up studies, but still, it's pointing to one potentially important marker. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>.</em></p>