Science Fair: The March of (inadequately controlled) Science
An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism
Compiled by Robert B. Waltz
A new retrospective study seems to find that overweight mothers, and mothers with diabetes, are substantially more likely to have autistic children.
Commentary: Retrospective studies are always a little dangerous, because of the risk of selecting a biased sample, but given all the recent reports of environmental influences on autism, I wouldn't be surprised if this turns out to be a valid result. However, we need to be cautious about confusing correlation with causation. This study in particular raises questions: Does obesity cause autism -- or do they both derive from a common cause? A lot of people with autism find it hard to exercise properly -- so it is perfectly possible that the explanation for this result is not that obesity promotes autism but that the genes which cause autism promote inactivity, which promotes obesity, and hence diabetes as well.
With all the sad news about neurodevelopmental difficulties caused by the Zika virus, this might be a good time to remind ourselves that that other viruses can cause problems too. There is a fair amount of evidence that mothers who become very ill while pregnant are more likely to produce autistic children. Now scientists think they may have found a reason why -- news that's big enough to show up on far more media outlets than usual.
A version with some "cute mouse" photos, although I'm not too impressed with the writing, is at the Daily Mail.
Commentary: We have two cautions here. One is that we have two unrelated studies going on (one about the link between maternal disease and autism, the other about fiddling with interleukin-17a), so it's hard to be sure the results are linked. The second is that the key research was done in mice, and mice aren't humans, and -- despite a lot of talk -- there is absolutely no evidence that so-called autistic behavior in mice springs from the same causes as autism in humans. Still, this all makes a great deal of sense. If nothing else, it should promote more useful research.
A British report finds unusual structures in the brains of those with autism (which is hardly news), with the specific differences being in areas related to language and facial recognition. The differences are said to be most extreme in those with the worst language troubles.
Commentary: This is one of those "probably true, but..." stories. Did this study look at the brains of autistic people with better-than-average language skills? How about non-autistic people with above- and below-average language skills? As seems to be the case far too often, this study doesn't seem properly controlled or to understand the full range of the autism spectrum.
Another week, another extremely small study that claims to have found a way to reduce the effects of autism. In a study with just twenty people, using just one dose of the drug, the beta blocker propranolol (brand name Inderol) was found to improve conversational give and take.
Commentary: My first comment is my standard one: this study is so small that, statistically, it means nothing. Especially since it involves a rather subjective measure of conversational fluency. Which doesn't mean it's wrong. Propranolol is not officially approved for treating anxiety -- but it is well known that it does so. And since everyone with autism suffers from anxiety, reducing the anxiety will improve social functioning! Besides, if it makes your heart stronger, doesn't it stand to reason that you'll have less to worry about?
It happens that I know at least one person with autism who is already taking propranolol for anxiety, and I suspect there should be more -- it's safer than the usual anti-anxiety drugs. Unfortunately, propranolol can cause sedation and fatigue, which may explain why there hasn't been more experimentation with this. If there is any real takeaway from this study, it's that it reminds us of how little is really being done to address autism symptoms.
Research shows that the majority of people with autism have some sort of co-morbid depression. As a result, many are prescribed antidepressants to help deal with their symptoms. So a lot of our readers might be interested in research on the less positive effects of these drugs, which include increased suicidal thinking and more aggressive behavior (the latter a surprise).
Commentary: Given how common depression is with autism, any drug that can help with it is obviously welcome. But there is some evidence (admittedly mostly anecdotal, but there is some research to support it) that people with autism are more likely to have adverse and unusual reactions to psychoactive medications. Also, there is some reason to think that the depression associated with autism isn't always like "normal" depression -- it is a response to social difficulties, or to a brain situation that isn't the same as depression in neurotypicals. So it may be that people with autism should be particularly alert to these sorts of responses to medication. This is not to say that people with autism should avoid antidepressants -- if they help, they help! But perhaps we should all be especially careful about monitoring people when they first start a new prescription.
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.