Autism Spectrum Disorder: Progress Toward Earlier Diagnosis

Sleeping baby

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Research shows that the roots of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) generally start early—most likely in the womb. That’s one more reason, on top of a large number of epidemiological studies, why current claims about the role of vaccines in causing autism can’t be right. But how early is ASD detectable? It’s a critical question, since early intervention has been shown to help limit the effects of autism. The problem is there’s currently no reliable way to detect ASD until around 18–24 months, when the social deficits and repetitive behaviors associated with the condition begin to appear.

Several months ago, an NIH-funded team offered promising evidence that it may be possible to detect ASD in high-risk 1-year-olds by shifting attention from how kids act to how their brains have grown [1]. Now, new evidence from that same team suggests that neurological signs of ASD might be detectable even earlier.

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Creative Minds: Helping More Kids Beat Anxiety Disorders

Dylan Gee

Dylan Gee

While earning her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Dylan Gee often encountered children and adolescents battling phobias, panic attacks, and other anxiety disorders. Most overcame them with the help of psychotherapy. But not all of the kids did, and Gee spent many an hour brainstorming about how to help her tougher cases, often to find that nothing worked.

What Gee noticed was that so many of the interventions she pondered were based on studies in adults. Little was actually known about the dramatic changes that a child’s developing brain undergoes and their implications for coping under stress. Gee, an assistant professor at Yale University, New Haven, CT, decided to dedicate her research career to bridging the gap between basic neuroscience and clinical interventions to treat children and adolescents with persistent anxiety and stress-related disorders.

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Zika and Birth Defects: The Evidence Mounts

Zike virus infection

Caption: Human neural progenitor cells (gray) infected with Zika virus (green) increased the enzyme caspase-3 (red), suggesting increased cell death.
Credit: Sarah C. Ogden, Florida State University, Tallahassee

Recently, public health officials have raised major concerns over the disturbing spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus among people living in and traveling to many parts of Central and South America [1]. While the symptoms of Zika infection are typically mild, grave concerns have arisen about its potential impact during pregnancy. The concerns stem from the unusual number of births of children with microcephaly, a very serious condition characterized by a small head and damaged brain, coinciding with the spread of Zika virus. Now, two new studies strengthen the connection between Zika and an array of birth defects, including, but not limited to, microcephaly.

In the first study, NIH-funded laboratory researchers show that Zika virus can infect and kill human neural progenitor cells [2]. Those progenitor cells give rise to the cerebral cortex, a portion of the brain often affected in children with microcephaly. The second study, involving a small cohort of women diagnosed with Zika virus during their pregnancies in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, suggests that the attack rate is disturbingly high, and microcephaly is just one of many risks to the developing fetus. [3]

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If I Only Had a Brain? Tissue Chips Predict Neurotoxicity

Image of neurons, glial cells, and nuclei

Caption: 3D neural tissue chips contain neurons (green), glial cells (red), and nuclei (blue). To take this confocal micrograph, developing neural tissue was removed from a chip and placed on a glass-bottom Petri dish.
Credit: Michael Schwartz, Dept.  of Bioengineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison

A lot of time, money, and effort are devoted to developing new drugs. Yet only one of every 10 drug candidates entering human clinical trials successfully goes on to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [1]. Many would-be drugs fall by the wayside because they prove toxic to the brain, liver, kidneys, or other organs—toxicity that, unfortunately, isn’t always detected in preclinical studies using mice, rats, or other animal models. That explains why scientists are working so hard to devise technologies that can do a better job of predicting early on which chemical compounds will be safe in humans.

As an important step in this direction, NIH-funded researchers at the Morgridge Institute for Research and University of Wisconsin-Madison have produced neural tissue chips with many features of a developing human brain. Each cultured 3D “organoid”—which sits comfortably in the bottom of a pea-sized well on a standard laboratory plate—comes complete with its very own neurons, support cells, blood vessels, and immune cells! As described in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [2], this new tool is poised to predict earlier, faster, and less expensively which new or untested compounds—be they drug candidates or even ingredients in cosmetics and pesticides—might harm the brain, particularly at the earliest stages of development.

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Sound Advice: High School Music Training Sharpens Language Skills

Band InstrumentsWhen children enter the first grade, their brains are primed for learning experiences, significantly more so, in fact, than adult brains. For instance, scientists have documented that musical training during grade school produces a signature set of benefits for the brain and for behavior—benefits that can last a lifetime, whether or not people continue to play music.

Now, researchers at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, have some good news for teenagers who missed out on learning to play musical instruments as young kids. Even when musical training isn’t started until high school, it produces meaningful changes in how the brain processes sound. And those changes have positive benefits not only for a teen’s musical abilities, but also for skills related to reading and writing.

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