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Why There May Never Be a Cure for Autism

Autism science is making great strides, but it may never yield a single cure because autism is likely not one disorder but many.

The word "cure" often gets in the way of autism research, says Gerald Fischbach, Scientific Director of the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative. "I don’t know of any neuropsychiatric disorder other than an infection that has been cured," he says. But that news is not as pessimistic as it sounds. A silver bullet cure may not be on the horizon, but new therapies and treatments could vastly improve the lives of those with ASD by targeting the individual components of the disorder. "The goal is to improve the quality of life of people who experience autistic symptomology," says Fischbach.


Further complicating the search for a cure is that autism appears to be a constellation of disorders. "I don’t think we’re going to find a cure for autism because I don’t think autism is really a single disorder," says Susan Bookheimer of UCLA. "As long as that is the case we’re going to have to find many approaches to treating different aspects of autism."

So where does this pursuit lead? Autism researchers are currently trying to find the pathways that lead from genes to neurobiological differences and in turn to behavioral differences. In particular, a great effort is currently underway to identify the genes that cause autism, says Michael Wigler, a geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. During his Big Think interviewed in 2010, Wigler described this effort: "By doing very exhaustive sequence comparisons of children to their parents, we will identify the actual culprit genes, and that will take us two to four years." He estimates that there will be up to 400 genes—any one of which could cause autism. "When we have those genes, when we see what they do, we can see what pathways they are interacting with, and some of those will suggest immediately treatments that can be tested."

As in many areas of medicine, this is a time of tremendous optimism, but "it's a marathon, not a sprint," says Christopher Walsh, Chief of the Division of Genetics at Children's Hospital Boston. "We now have the first sort of beginning of what we hope will be a raging bonfire of possible treatments," he believes. "But right now it’s just a couple of little hopeful flames that we’re trying to blow on and nurse as well as we can to get them going."

More Resources:

—A recent Yale School of Medicine study that identifies the neural signatures of autism.

—A scientific study investigating whether MDMA (ecstasy) or a similar compound can increase empathy in those with autism.

Is the universe a graveyard? This theory suggests humanity may be alone.

Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?

According to the Great Filter theory, Earth might be one of the only planets with intelligent life. And that's a good thing (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA]).
Surprising Science

Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.

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Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

A truck pulls out of a large Walmart regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Washington, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
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Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

A girl and her mother take an afternoon nap in bed.

Personal Growth
  • We spend 40 percent of our childhoods asleep, a time for cognitive growth and development.
  • A recent study found an association between irregular sleep patterns in childhood and either psychotic experiences or borderline personality disorder during teenage years.
  • The researchers hope their findings can help identify at-risk youth to improve early intervention.
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