New Genetically Engineered Monkeys Show “Autism-Like” Behaviors

Chinese scientists have inserted a gene in monkeys that causes an extremely rare autism syndrome in people.

The mutant monkeys show unusual features in their first few years of life, including anxiety, abnormal social interactions, and running in circles around their cages, as described on Monday in the journal Nature.

The monkeys took six years to develop, and their care costs up to 50 times more than laboratory mice, the scientists said. Experiments on monkeys are also more ethically fraught.

But researchers are increasingly disillusioned with mouse models of brain disorders. The vast majority of studies of experimental drugs are done on rodents, and about 90% of those drugs fail when actually tested in people. (Just this month, pharma giant Novartis reported the failure of two clinical trials of a touted autism drug that had reversed symptoms in mouse models.)

“We think this non-human primate is absolutely required, in the long run, for our development of therapies and drugs for human psychiatric and neurological disease,” Mu-ming Poo, director of the Institute of Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, where the new monkey work was carried out, said at a press briefing. “There seems no other choice.”

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BuzzFeed News, January 2016.

Study Of Houston Robberies Finds That Eyewitnesses Are Surprisingly Reliable

Over the last couple of decades, as DNA testing has freed hundreds of Americans who were wrongfully convicted of murder and sex crimes, eyewitnesses have gotten a bad rap — and rightly so. Their misidentifications played a role in more than 70% of the 336 wrongful convictions that have been overturned with DNA evidence since 1989.

But the problems surrounding eyewitness memory have more to do with police procedures than the witnesses themselves. According to a study out this week, a large proportion of misidentifications could be avoided if police investigators paid attention to one key factor: how confident witnesses say they are at the time of initial identification.

“A high-confidence initial identification is surprisingly strong evidence,” John Wixted, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, and lead author of the new study, told BuzzFeed News. “And if you ignore that, you’re also going to increase the odds that a guilty person is going to go free.”

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BuzzFeed News, December 2015.

Epigenetic Test Can Predict Homosexuality, Controversial Study Claims

Researchers have developed an algorithm that they say can crudely predict homosexuality in men based on certain chemical tags in their DNA.

These controversial results, which have not yet been published in a scientific journal, will be presented Thursday afternoon at a genetics conference in Baltimore.

By analyzing five “epigenetic” tags — chemicals that latch onto DNA and help turn genes on or off — the algorithm can reportedly predict a man’s sexual orientation with 67% accuracy, according to Tuck Ngun, who led the work as a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA.

Several experts who were not involved in the research told BuzzFeed News that they were skeptical of the veracity of these results, particularly because the study was based on a relatively small sample of men.

“All predictive models need replication with larger samples, and this one certainly does,” J. Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, told BuzzFeed News by email.

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BuzzFeed News, October 2015.

#TheDress Reveals Something Pretty Profound About Autism

Last night, the internet came alive to fight over that dress. Was it gold and white, asnearly three-quarters of BuzzFeed poll respondents believe, or black and blue, asKanye West does?

While the Twittersphere carried on, Emily Willingham, a developmental biologist and mother of an autistic boy, made a profound point about the dress and autism.

Scientists have known for decades that autism is often characterized by sensory issues. The well-known autistic advocate Temple Grandin, for example, has often spoken out about her extraordinary vision and sensitivity to touch.

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BuzzFeed News, February 2015.

Wake No More

For most teenagers, getting out of bed in the morning is a drag. But when Lloyd Johnson was 13 years old, he suddenly found waking up not just irritating, but agonizing and confusing. Sometimes he would open his eyes and already be in the car on the way to school — with no memory of showering or getting dressed. Other days, his family would drag him outside and pour water over his head to stir him, but still he’d remain asleep. His toughest mornings began when he woke up in an empty house, realizing that his family had simply given up on waking him.

Things started not long after a failed surgery. He’d been having intense pains in his right leg for six months, which the doctors attributed to what they thought was a hip disorder. But the procedure was a flop. Lloyd, always a tall kid with a shock of blonde hair, left the hospital with the same old ache in his step — and this bizarre new sleeping habit.

Still, Lloyd and his parents didn’t pay as much attention to his sleeping patterns as they did to the constant pains in his leg. He socialized as much as he could — the movies, church, sports — but pain caused him to skip out frequently, which in turn led to bullying. “Lloyd’s a faker,” the kids would tease. It hurt. By 14, Lloyd was spending more and more days at home, often dozing on the couch or in his bed. Eventually he dropped out of school altogether.

Over the next two years, though, Lloyd’s pain inexplicably got better, and his sleeping went back to normal. He got his driver’s license, started running, and completed his high school requirements. At 18, he enrolled in Murdoch University in his hometown of Perth, Australia, studied computer science, and graduated in the top 2 percent of his class.

It was a complete turnaround. Now, full of energy and enthusiasm, he launched a successful business as a life coach, traveling the world to give weeklong hypnotherapy seminars that sometimes made him $40,000 or more a week. He’d turned into a fitness enthusiast, completing a triathlon, a half marathon, and a 4K with his girlfriend on Sydney’s Bondi Beach. There’s a photo of the two of them mid-stride, beaming, the epitome of carefree, healthy youth. Lloyd had made an extraordinary transition, turning from an immobile, sickly kid into an athletic, confident leader.

But in the spring of 2012, when he was 25, Lloyd’s spark went out again. This time it wasn’t the pain that stole his life: It was the sleep.

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Matter, January 2015.

Why Do We See the Man in the Moon?

Take a look at the slideshow above. The photos depict, in order: tower binoculars, a tank tread, tree bark, headphones, a tray table, a toilet, eggs, and more tree bark. Yet I perceived every one of them as a face, and I bet you did, too.

That’s because, as I wrote about a few weeks back, most people are obsessed with faces. We see faces everywhere, even in things that are most definitely not faces. The most famous example is probably the man in the moon. The weirdest has got to be the person who reportedly paid $28,000 for an old grilled cheese sandwich whose burn marks outline the face of the Virgin Mary.

This phenomenon, called face pareidolia, isn’t new (Leonardo da Vinci even wrote about it as an artistic tool). But nobody knows much about how or why our brains create this illusion. This week I came across a fascinating brain-imaging study that begins to investigate these questions. The paper, published in the journal Cortex, is titled “Seeing Jesus in Toast,” and this fall it won an Ig Nobel Prize, awarded “for achievements that first make people laugh then make them think.”

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Only Human, December 2014.

Category Fail

I’ve written a lot of stories about autism research, and I’d say one of the biggest scientific developments in the past few years was the creation of ‘autistic’ mice. Researchers first found many, many genes associated with autism in people, and then created dozens of mouse models that carry one or more of those same genetic glitches.

In the fall of 2011, for example, one team debuted mice with extra copies of a gene called UBE3A. Approximately 1 to 3 percent of children with autism carry extra copies of the same gene. These mutant mice show little interest in social interactions, compared with controls. They also emit fewer vocalizations and repetitively groom themselves. This was heralded as something of an autism trifecta, as the animals mimicked the three ‘core’ symptoms of people with the disorder: deficits in social behaviors and in communication, as well as repetitive behaviors.

The same goes for mouse models based on environmental, rather than genetic triggers. Mice whose mothers got an infection while pregnant end up with abnormal social interactions and vocalizations, and they repetitively bury marbles. Once again, the animals show all three “core” deficits, and are thus considered to be a valid model of autism.

There’s a nice and tidy logic to this approach, understandably appealing to neuroscientists. If a mouse model mimics the three behaviors used to define autism, then studying the cells and circuits of those mice could lead us to a better understanding of the human disorder. But there’s a big hole in that logic, according to a provocative commentary published by Eric London in this month’s issue of Trends in Neurosciences. The problem is that the symptoms of autism — like those of all psychiatric disorders — vary widely from one person to the next. So using the fuzzy diagnostic category of ‘autism’ to guide research, he writes, “is fraught with so many problems that the validity of research conclusions is suspect.”

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Only Human, December 2014.

Autism News Live from the 2014 Society for Neuroscience Meeting

I just got home from some intense reporting on autism research for SFARI.org at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington D.C. The SFARI team wrote more than 50 stories, all told; here are mine:

Mother’s immunity linked to brain inflammation in monkeys
The next hot topic in autism research? Immune cells
Brains of Angelman mice show altered response to motion
Simple steps aim to solve science’s ‘reproducibility problem’
Social brain is duped by fake personal interactions
Deaf mouse study hints at gap between squeaks, speech
Cesarean birth alters immune system, social behavior in mice
Imaging lights up dynamics of neuron connections in mice
Diabetes drug is sweet cure for fragile X in fruit flies
Monkey missing Rett gene prompts primate research debate

Personhood Week: People and Their Pets

I would be remiss, in a series about personhood, not to mention animal rights and the notion of non-human personhood. It’s incredibly interesting.* And yet… it’s not an issue that I can think about with much clarity or insight. When it comes to animals, my choices are full of contradictions and hypocrisies. I eat meat, wear leather, and endorse the use of animal models in medical research. On the other hand, I’m totally taken with the growing body of research demonstrating that non-human animals have cognitive skills once thought to be uniquely human. I believe animal cruelty is wrong and, as regular readers know all too well, I consider my dog part of the family.

So it’s that last thing I’m going to discuss here: pet-keeping. Nearly two-thirds of American families allow animals (animals!) to live with them. People are (arguably, more on that below) the only species to keep pets. Why do we bother? And what does our love of pets say about our personhood?

Scientists have proposed many different theories, as Harold Herzog outlines in the current issue of Animal Behavior and Cognition. Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, has been studying our relationship with animals for decades. His theory, which I find quite compelling, is that our love of pets comes from an innate predisposition to form emotional attachments, combined with rapid and powerful cultural evolution.

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Only Human, November 2014.