One Step Closer to Newborn Screening for Autism

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Photo by Isaac Quesada

Simple blood test would identify key biomarkers

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Because early detection of autism is linked to significantly improved outcomes, the discovery of early predictors could make all the difference in a child’s development.

Dr. Ray Bahado-Singh, a geneticist and Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology for Beaumont Health and the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine and his research team, identified key biomarkers for predicting autism in newborns.

The preliminary, collaborative study used Artificial Intelligence, a computer-based technology which scans a map of the human genome.

The team’s findings could lead to an accessible, standardized newborn screening tool which uses a simple blood test, Dr. Bahado-Singh said, enabling earlier intervention, reducing disability and improving outcomes.

The project compared DNA from 14 known cases of autism to 10 control cases and featured researchers from the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, Albion College and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

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Results appeared in the journal Brain Research.

“Compared to what is currently available, these findings provide a more direct method which could be employed earlier on, shortly after birth,” Dr. Bahado-Singh said. “It’s been shown that children who are treated earlier do better in life.”

Symptoms of autism include sensory processing difficulties, anxiety, irritability, sleep dysfunction, seizures and gastrointestinal disorders.

According to Autism Speaks, nearly half of 25-year-olds diagnosed with autism have never held a paying job. In the United States, the majority of costs associated with autism are for adult services – an estimated $175 to $196 billion a year, compared to $61 to $66 billion a year for children. 

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Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children be screened between 18-24 months, children in large portions of the U.S. do not receive recommended clinical screenings.

Lori Warner, Ph.D., director of the Ted Lindsay Foundation HOPE Center which treats children with autism at Beaumont Children’s called the findings optimistic.

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“We are always looking for new ways to make a difference in the lives of our patients,” Dr. Warner said. “Getting them into therapy early on is a proven way to make their path, and that of their families, easier and more meaningful.”

Dr. David Aughton, Genetics Chief for Beaumont Children’s, said he looks forward to additional, larger follow-up studies.

“Although it has been thought for many years that the underlying cause of a significant proportion of autism is likely to be nongenetic in nature, this study takes a very pragmatic and important first step toward investigating the epigenome — the inheritable changes in gene expression — and identifying those underlying nongenetic influences. The authors call for larger follow-up studies to validate their findings, and I eagerly look forward to learning the outcome of those validation studies.”

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Bravest woman that ever lived

The bravest woman…

Bravest woman that ever lived

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Erica Armstrong Dunbar enlists students’ help to tell untold stories of the “bravest woman that ever lived”

Credit: Glen Wilson/Focus Features
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman

In an iconic image, Harriet Tubman stands calmly wrapped in a shawl. But the picture that most people associate with Tubman doesn’t scratch the surface of the strength and determination it took leading 60 to 70 slaves to safety through the Underground Railroad.

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With the release of the film Harriet, Rutgers scholar Erica Armstrong Dunbar said it’s a good time to shed light on Tubman’s life not only as the famed Underground Railroad conductor, but as a sister, a daughter, a wife, a mother and a woman. 

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“What we know about Tubman’s life from history books really only consists of 10 years of her life, and I wanted to present her in a way that is fresh,’ said Dunbar, a Rutgers University–New Brunswick Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History and the author of She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman. “The point was to be accessible and have it be modern and contemporary, so it connects to readers across generations to make a story that is over 100 years old feel relevant today.”

Credit: Glen Wilson/Focus Features
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman

Dunbar began with Tubman’s grandmother, a woman named Modesty, who endured the Middle Passage and arrived in colonial Maryland in the late eighteenth century. Tubman’s parents, Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross were enslaved by different families on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Tubman was born with the name Araminta Ross, and her family was separated as many others were during the slave trade, with her three sisters sold to different plantation owners.

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“I wanted to start at the very beginning and talk about the things we don’t often hear,” Dunbar said. “I explore her teenage years and her marriage to John Tubman, who actually left her for another woman once she escaped to Philadelphia. I discuss her adopted child Gertie through her second marriage to Nelson Davis, a man 20 years her junior. A decade later, Tubman led a military expedition during the Civil War and rescued close to 750 enslaved people. After the war ended, she continued to fight for 53 years as an activist for the elderly and women’s rights. It’s important that we see all these different sides, so we can begin to look at her as a whole person.” 

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To offer this perspective, Dunbar enlisted research associates from various universities, including Rutgers–New Brunswick’s Ashley Council, a second-year graduate student focused on African-American history. Council spent months digging through the Freedmen’s Bureau Archives, 19th century newspapers, census data, civil war letters, black abolitionist papers, speeches and many other historical sources. She faced the complex task of uncovering slave history, much of it told through the lens of white supremacy. 

Credit: Erica Armstrong Dunba
Erica Armstrong Dunbar

“I researched portions of Tubman’s history like the Combahee River Raid, and I started constructing narratives that challenged me to write in a more accessible way, to touch on the humanity of the reader,” said Council, who plans to become a professor of African-American history. “There is not a lot of archival material about Tubman and the history of the enslaved . Archives weren’t made to make the enslaved visible. So, I had to take history based in white supremacy and find the narratives that were hidden beneath. It isn’t something our discipline always allows and this was an amazing opportunity to be a part of a new way of telling her story.”

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Dunbar was invited to attend pre-screenings of the film Harriet, which she invited her graduate student associates to join. Students also discussed Tubman’s life in conjunction with the film release during live podcasts and Twitter chats. While there are some differences between her book and the film, there were moments that shed light on the militant side of Tubman, which Dunbar was happy to see on screen. 

“She was a fierce black woman — and certainly one of the bravest women that ever lived,” Dunbar said. “She made 13 trips along the Underground Railroad, traveling more than 100 miles and never lost one single person. She reminds us of the importance of the strength of leadership in the darkest of times and to stand up for social injustice. Her story offers hope and encouragement in battling the issues happening today.”

Dunbar said it was important to involve students in her research. 

“I want students to have the opportunity to work in the archives and uncover the fragments of history that are untold. It helps them see possibilities in the field of history and the prominence of the Department of History at Rutgers. We are the number one program in African American history in the nation for a reason.”

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Broadcast interviews: Rutgers University–New Brunswick has broadcast-quality TV and radio studios available for remote live or taped interviews with Rutgers experts. For more information, contact Cynthia Medina c.medina@rutgers.edu

ABOUT RUTGERS—NEW BRUNSWICK

Rutgers University–New Brunswick is where Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, began more than 250 years ago. Ranked among the world’s top 60 universities, Rutgers’s flagship university is a leading public research institution and a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. It is home to internationally acclaimed faculty and has 12 degree-granting schools and a Division I Athletics program. It is the Big Ten Conference’s most diverse university. Through its community of teachers, scholars, artists, scientists, and healers, Rutgers is equipped as never before to transform lives.

Unattainable Standards of Beauty for Today's Woman

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Victoria Secret models shrink while average US women’s dress size increases

Photo by Tamara Bellis
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While the average American woman’s waist circumference and dress size has increased over the past 20 years, Victoria’s Secret fashion models have become more slender, with a decrease in bust, waist, hips and dress size, though their waist to hip ratio (WHR) has remained constant.

These findings represent an ideal of beauty that continuously moves further away from the characteristics of the average American woman.

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Quantifying female body attractiveness is complex. Perceived attractiveness is influenced by physical and nonphysical traits and is further guided by media exposure and sociocultural standards of the time. One of the more established parameters to evaluate female body attractiveness is the WHR, which measures body fat distribution. Interestingly, WHR has continued to be an ideal beauty trait that has stayed constant over time and cross-culterally.

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In order to evaluate trends of physical body attributes, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) measured and compared Victoria’s Secret models from 1995 to 2018. The first Victoria’s Secret runway show debuted 23 years ago and since then has been viewed by millions annually, making it the most watched fashion show worldwide.

The data showed that over time, Victoria’s Secret fashion models have become thinner, with smaller busts, waist, hips and dress size, whereas their WHR remained constant. “Conversely, the average American woman’s waist circumference and dress size has increased and varies between a misses size 16 and 18,” explained corresponding author Neelam Vashi, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at BUSM.

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According to the researchers, in parallel with this trend, the percentage of women seeking cosmetic surgical procedures has dramatically increased and may be due to the desire to achieve the ideal WHR, which is a narrow waist set against fuller hips. Buttock and lower body lift has increased by 4,295 percent and 256 percent, respectively since 2000.

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“Our results represent a potentially changing weight ideal of beauty that is moving farther away from the characteristics of the average American woman; however, a constant idealized WHR remains intact,” added Vashi, who also is director of the Boston University Cosmetic and Laser Center at Boston Medical Center.

Kids with autism develop life skills through dance

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A University of Delaware team uses dance to teach social communication skills to children with autism.

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A study at the University of Delaware is exploring how dance can help kids with autism enhance their social communication skills as well as their motor skills.

Brain Enlargement in Autism

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Brain Enlargement in Autism Due to Brain Changes Occurring Before Age 2

Credit: Image created by Clement Vachet, Neuro Image Research and Analysis Laboratories, UNC Department of Psychiatry.
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In 2005, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 2-year-old children with autism have brains up to 10 percent larger than children of the same age without autism.

Now a follow-up study by UNC researchers has found that the children who had enlarged brains at age 2 continued to have enlarged brains at ages 4 and 5, but the amount of the enlargement was to the same degree found at age 2. This increased brain growth did not continue beyond 2 years of age and the changes detected at age 2 were due to overgrowth prior to that time point. In addition, the study found that the cortical enlargement was associated with increased folding on the surface of the brain (or increased surface area) and not an increase in the thickness of outer layer of the brain (or gray matter).

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“Brain enlargement resulting from increased folding on the surface of the brain is most likely genetic in origin and a result of an increase in the proliferation of neurons in the developing brain,” said Heather Cody Hazlett, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, who is the lead author of the new study, which is published in the May 2011 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

In both the 2005 study and the new study, Hazlett and colleagues analyzed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the children’s brains using computer software developed for that purpose by Martin Styner, PhD, an assistant professor of computer science and psychiatry at UNC, and Guido Gerig, PhD, formerly at UNC and now at the University of Utah.

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“From earlier work by our group on head circumference or head size in children with autism, we think that brain overgrowth in many children with autism may actually be happening around the first birthday. Together these findings suggest that we should be searching for genes that may underlie the over-proliferation of neurons in this early post-natal period,” said Joseph Piven, MD, senior author of the new study and director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities.

UNC is currently leading two separate studies aimed at that goal. Hazlett leads the Brain Development in School Age Children with Autism study, which is funded by Autism Speaks. “It was important to continue to follow these children to track their brain development to see if the brain and behavioral differences we observed were maintained as the children matured,” said Hazlett.

UNC is also leading the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS), a National Institutes of Health-funded multi-center study which includes four sites around the U.S. “We are studying infant children at high genetic risk for autism, by virtue of their having an older brother or sister with autism – somewhere around 20 percent of those children will develop autism. We are doing brain scans and behavior assessments on those children at 6, 12 and 24 months of age to look at how the brain develops in the subgroup that develop autism before they have symptoms of autism at 6 months of age and over the interval that they develop autism – between 6 and 24 months of age, in most cases,” Piven said. “We are also looking at whether specific gene alterations may be responsible.”

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More information about IBIS is available at http://www.ibisnetwork.org/.

Authors of the May 2011 article in Archives of General Psychiatry, in addition to Hazlett, are Michele Poe, PhD, Guido Gerig, PhD, Martin Styner, PhD, Chad Chappell, Rachel Gimpel Smith, Clement Vachet, MS, and Piven.

The UNC authors are all affiliated with one or more of the following: The Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, and the Department of Computer Science in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Autism Changes Molecular Structure of the Brain

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Credit: UCLA/Geschwind lab

UCLA scientists measured the expression levels of more than 20,000 genes in tissue samples from autistic and healthy brains. When the samples were grouped by expression patterns, most autistic brains (red bar at top, left) showed a striking overlap.

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For decades, autism researchers have faced a baffling riddle: how to unravel a disorder that leaves no known physical trace as it develops in the brain.

Now a UCLA study is the first to reveal how the disorder makes its mark at the molecular level, resulting in an autistic brain that differs dramatically in structure from a healthy one. Published May 25 in the advance online edition of Nature, the findings provide new insight into how genes and proteins go awry in autism to alter the mind.

The discovery also identifies a new line of attack for researchers, who currently face a vast array of potential fronts for tackling the neurological disease and identifying its diverse causes.

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“If you randomly pick 20 people with autism, the cause of each person’s disease will be unique,” said principal investigator Dr. Daniel Geschwind, the Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Distinguished Chair in Human Genetics and a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Yet when we examined how genes and proteins interact in autistic people’s brains, we saw well-defined shared patterns. This common thread could hold the key to pinpointing the disorder’s origins.”

The research team, led by Geschwind, included scientists from the University of Toronto and King’s College London. They compared brain tissue samples obtained after death from 19 autism patients and 17 healthy volunteers. After profiling three brain areas previously linked to autism, the group zeroed in on the cerebral cortex, the most evolved part of the human brain.

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The researchers focused on gene expression — how a gene’s DNA sequence is copied into RNA, which directs the synthesis of cellular molecules called proteins. Each protein is assigned a specific task by the gene to perform in the cell.

By measuring gene-expression levels in the cerebral cortex, the team uncovered consistent differences in how genes in autistic and healthy brains encode information.

“We were surprised to see similar gene expression patterns in most of the autistic brains we studied,” said first author Irina Voineagu, a UCLA postdoctoral fellow in neurology. “From a molecular perspective, half of these brains shared a common genetic signature. Given autism’s numerous causes, this was an unexpected and exciting finding.”

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The researchers’ next step was to identify the common patterns. To do this, they looked at the cerebral cortex’s frontal lobe, which plays a role in judgment, creativity, emotions and speech, and at its temporal lobes, which regulate hearing, language and the processing and interpreting of sounds.

When the scientists compared the frontal and temporal lobes in the healthy brains, they saw that more than 500 genes were expressed at different levels in the two regions.

In the autistic brains, these differences were virtually non-existent.

“In a healthy brain, hundreds of genes behave differently from region to region, and the frontal and temporal lobes are easy to tell apart,” Geschwind said. “We didn’t see this in the autistic brain. Instead, the frontal lobe closely resembles the temporal lobe. Most of the features that normally distinguish the two regions had disappeared.”

Two other clear-cut patterns emerged when the scientists compared the autistic and healthy brains. First, the autistic brain showed a drop in the levels of genes responsible for neuron function and communication. Second, the autistic brain displayed a jump in the levels of genes involved in immune function and inflammatory response.

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“Several of the genes that cropped up in these shared patterns were previously linked to autism,” said Geschwind. “By demonstrating that this pathology is passed from the genes to the RNA to the cellular proteins, we provide evidence that the common molecular changes in neuron function and communication are a cause, not an effect, of the disease.”

The next step will be for the research team to expand its search for the genetic and related causes of autism to other regions of the brain.

Autism is a complex brain disorder that strikes in early childhood. The disease disrupts a child’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships and is often accompanied by acute behavioral challenges. In the United States, autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed in one in 110 children — and one in 70 boys. Diagnoses have expanded tenfold in the last decade.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and Genome Canada. Tissue samples were provided by the Autism Tissue Project, the Harvard Brain Bank and the Medical Research Council’s London Brain Bank for Neurodegenerative Disease.

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Geschwind’s and Voineagu’s co-authors included Jennifer Lowe, Yuan Tian, Steve Horvath, Jonathan Mill and Rita Cantor of UCLA; Benjamin Blencowe and Xinchen Wang of the University of Toronto; and Patrick Johnston of King’s College London.

The UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment provides diagnosis, family counseling, clinical trials and treatment for patients with autism. UCLA is one of eight centers in the National Institutes of Health–funded Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment network and one of 10 original Collaborative Programs for Excellence in Autism.

Autistic Young Adults

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Autistic Young Adults Missing Out on Much-Needed Services

What happens to young adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) once they graduate high school and are no longer entitled to services?

“National, state and local policy makers have been working hard to meet the needs of the growing numbers of young children identified as having an ASD,” says Paul Shattuck, PhD, professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. “However, there has been no effort of a corresponding magnitude to plan for ensuring continuity of supports and services as these children age into adulthood.”

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In a first-of-its-kind study, Shattuck looked at rates of service use among young adults with an ASD during their first few years after leaving high school. He found that 39.1 percent of these youths received no speech therapy, mental health, medical diagnostics or case management services.

Shattuck also found that the odds of not receiving any services were more than three times higher for African-American young adults compared with white young adults and more than five times higher for those with incomes of $25,000 or less relative to those with incomes over $75,000.

In his study, published in the current issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Shattuck looked at medical, mental health, speech therapy and case management services.

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He found that overall rates of service use were 23.5 percent for medical services, 35 percent for mental health services, 41.9 percent for case management and 9.1 percent for speech therapy.

This compares with service use while in high school: 46.2 percent received mental health services, 46.9 percent had medical services, 74.6 percent were getting speech therapy and 63.6 percent had a case manager.

Shattuck says that the years immediately following the age at which students typically exit from high school are pivotal for all youths.

“A positive transition creates a solid foundation for an adaptive adult life course and a negative transition can set the stage for a pathway fraught with developmental, health and social difficulties,” he says.

“Youths with ASDs are especially vulnerable during this period because of their challenges with communication and social interaction, greater reliance on others for aid and high rates of health and mental health problems.”

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Shattuck notes that there is a dearth of nationally representative data on the prevalence and correlates of service use among young adults with ASDs.

“Basic descriptive data on the prevalence and patterns of service use are necessary for planning by policy makers and administrators,” Shattuck says. “Knowledge of service use can help identify underserved populations and plan targeted services.

“Estimates of service use and correlates will help clinicians, service providers and family members be more informed and better prepared as they try to help teens with ASDs navigate the transition from adolescence to young adulthood,” he says.

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Data for this report came from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 (NLTS2), a 10-year study conducted from 2000-2010 by SRI International for the U.S. Department of Education that followed more than 11,000 youths enrolled in special education as they aged into adulthood.

The study included 920 youths enrolled in the special education autism category at the start of data collection in May 2001.

The study’s co-authors are Mary Wagner, PhD, principal scientist in the Center for Education and Human Services at SRI International, and Sarah Narendorf, Paul Sterzing and Melissa Hensley of Washington University in St. Louis.

Some Learning is A Whole-Brain Affair

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Credit: Richard Roth and Richard Huganir
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AMPA receptors in green on neurons in magenta at one time point in a live mouse.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine have successfully used a laser-assisted imaging tool to “see” what happens in brain cells of mice learning to reach out and grab a pellet of food. Their experiments, they say, add to evidence that such motor-based learning can occur in multiple areas of the brain, even ones not typically associated with motor control.

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“Scientists should be looking at the entire brain to understand specific types of learning,” says Richard Huganir, Ph.D., Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and Director of the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Different parts of the brain contribute to learning in different ways, and studying brain cell receptors can help us decipher how this works.”

The work, say the researchers, may ultimately inform efforts to develop treatments for learning-based and neurocognitive disorders.

In a report on the work, appearing online Dec. 31 in Neuron, Huganir and his research team say they focused on AMPA-type glutamate receptors, or AMPARs, key molecules that help send messages between brain cells called neurons. AMPARs function like antennas that form along the surface of a particular spot on neurons called a synapse, where it receives molecular signals from other neurons.

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To monitor and measure AMPAR levels in mouse brains, scientists previously had to dissect the organ before and after a learning experiment and compare differences. Now, scientists have ways to directly view the brain during learning, recording thousands of synapses at a time.

In the new experiments, scientists injected DNA-encoding AMPARs carrying a fluorescent tag into the brains of mice, and used an electrical pulse to get neurons to absorb the AMPAR DNA. Next, with a tool called two-photon microscopy, the scientists used a laser — essentially an intensely focused beam of light — to detect and measure the amount of fluorescence coming from the tagged AMPARs.

More fluorescence is an indication of increased AMPAR activity and messaging between neurons, a good sign that learning and memory building is taking place in those neurons, Huganir says.

To “see” what learning looked like in the test animals’ neurons, Huganir’s team trained mice to reach for and grab a food pellet placed just outside their cage using their paws. Normally, mice get pellets with their mouths.

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While the mice were learning how to reach for the pellet, the scientists found an approximately 20% increase in the activity of AMPARs in an area of the brain known as the motor cortex, which is known for controlling and precisely moving muscles. On neurons, the AMPARs look like lights on a Christmas tree and glow brighter with increasing activity.

But the experiments also showed the same increase in AMPAR activity levels in the visual cortex too.

“This made sense because vision is very important for motor control,” says Richard Roth, Ph.D., currently a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, but who performed experiments for this study as a graduate student in Huganir’s laboratory.

“So, we did the same experiment again, but with the lights switched off,” says Roth.

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Using infrared light, which the mice couldn’t see, the mice eventually learned to successfully grab the food, but there was a smaller increase (10%) in the activity of AMPARs in the visual cortex.

“We believe the mice brains are using different sets of sensory cues in the dark to learn the motor task, including touch and smell, enabling these other senses to take over,” says Roth.

Next, the research team repeated the experiments using specialized light-activated modulators to shut down neurons in either the motor or visual cortex.

If the mice were trained to get the pellet with the room lights on, the mice could not complete the task if their visual cortex was shut down. “Clearly, these mice relied on learning centralized in their visual cortex to reach the pellet,” says Roth.

However, mice initially trained to grab the pellet in the dark could still complete the task, even if their visual cortex was shut down.

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“We’ve traditionally thought that motor-based learning happens solely in the motor part of the brain, but our studies and others now show that it’s not as specific as we had thought. There is more of a brainwide effect in learning,” says Roth.

Huganir notes that among the genes that control neuronal receptors involved in learning is SYNGAP. His and others’ research has shown that when the gene is mutated, it contributes to conditions including intellectual disability, autism and schizophrenia — all conditions marked in part by disrupted thinking and learning.

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This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R01NS036715 and P50MH100024).

Other scientists who contributed to this research include Robert H. Cudmore from the University of California School of Medicine, Davis; Han Tan and Ingie Hong from Johns Hopkins; and Yong Zhang from Peking University, Beijing.

DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2019.12.005

Autism and Divorce

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Study Details Autism’s Heavy Toll Beyond Childhood on Marriages

Photo by Eric Ward

The parents of grown children with autism are more likely to divorce than couples with typically developing children, according to new data from a large longitudinal study of families of adolescents and adults with autism.The study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Family Psychology by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Waisman Center, paints a new picture of the prospects of long-term marital success for parents raising a child with autism.

The study is the first to track marital history of parents of adult children with autism. It reveals that, in contrast to previous assumptions, parents do not have a greater risk of divorce when their son or daughter with autism is young.

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However, as the child with autism grows into adolescence and adulthood, parents are more likely to divorce than are parents of typically developing children. Although findings reveal diminished prospects for a lasting marriage for parents raising a child with autism, the majority of marriages in this study survived. The study compared the marital fates of 391 couples — the parents of adolescent and adult children with autism — to a sample drawn from another large longitudinal study, the National Survey of Midlife in the United States (MIDUS). The goal of the study was to document the rate and timing of divorce of parents of children with autism, explains Sigan Hartley, a UW-Madison assistant professor of human development and family studies and lead author of the report.

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The study revealed that the divorce rate for parents of children with autism mirrors the divorce rate of the parents of children without disabilities until the child reaches 8 years of age. After that, the divorce rate goes down for parents of children without disabilities but remains high for parents of children with autism.“There seems to be a prolonged vulnerability for divorce in parents of children with autism,” says Hartley. “Typically, if couples can survive the early child-rearing years, parenting demands decrease and there is often less strain on the marriage. However, parents of children with autism often continue to live with and experience high parenting demands into their child’s adulthood, and thus marital strain may remain high in these later years.”

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Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder or ASD, has symptoms that vary considerably in severity between individuals, but core characteristics of the disorder include difficulty establishing and maintaining social relationships, delayed communication skills, and repetitive motions such as rocking back and forth and hand flapping. Children with autism frequently require high levels of care and continue to live with parents as adults.

“There is a lifelong profile of challenging behaviors and symptoms associated with autism,” Hartley notes. “Few developmental disabilities appear to be more taxing on parents and there is a great need for support services for families when the child is an adolescent and adult. Providing support for couples to help them work on their marriages is an obvious step. If we can get information and support to these families, we hope to be able to support lasting marriages.”

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The new study compares data from two large longitudinal studies, the Adolescents and Adults with Autism Study, directed by Marsha Mailick Seltzer, a UW-Madison professor of social work and director of the Waisman Center, and MIDUS, directed by UW-Madison psychology professor Carol Ryff. Both studies are funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.