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Science Fair: Brain Wave


An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

Science Fair

An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism 

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

Brain Wave

A new project hopes to use stem cells to create drug treatments for autism. The idea is to grow parts of a presumably-autistic brain in a lab setting, then try drugs on them to see what happens.

Commentary: I don't think this is going to lead to much. (Frankly, I hope not, because I think growing brain cells in a lab is horribly immoral. What if they become conscious?) A good model of the brain envisions it as a series of modules and connections. So there are modules for sight, sound, smell; also modules for emotional reactions, rational thought, and so forth. Then there are nerves connecting these modules to let them communicate. Brain scans give substantial evidence that, in people autism, the modules are unusually formed and/or the connections are too big or too small. (This is why people with autism often have gifts as well as deficits: Some of the malformed modules are better than the neurotypical version.) But the way the modules develop isn't determined by the cells themselves; it's the result of a complex of hormonal signals and gene responses. Autistic brain cells themselves are just fine -- if they weren't, people with autism couldn't survive. It's the wiring that's wrong. So to learn about an autistic brain, you need a whole brain, or at least a whole module, not just some cells. So this probably isn't going to produce anything useful. But the great thing about science is that a negative result to an experiment can be just as useful as a positive one. My only advice would be... don't sign up for trials of any of those drugs they're creating based on the wrong sort of experiment….

Of Mice and....

A gene called Pten can influence autism-like behavior in mice, which the researchers think could lead to a treatment that could help humans with problems associated with the same gene.

Commentary: The obvious problem with animal experiments is that there is no reason at all to think that autism in animals has anything to do with autism in people. (Has anyone seen an autistic mouse with savant abilities?) And even if the model is applicable, this particular genetic condition is found in only some people with autism. On the other hand, we know that many people with autism have problems with depression, and serotonin is associated with depression, so there may be promise in this research.

Author bio: AuSM member Robert B. Waltz was diagnosed with autism in 2012. He earned his B.A. in physics and mathematics from Hamline University in 1985. He is the author of three books on folklore, the editor of the online folk music database The Traditional Ballad Index, and recently has been informally studying the biology of autism.