Improving Health & Medicine

The Autism Puzzle: What the Weizmann Institute is Doing to Solve It

E-News, April 2016 • TAGS: Autism, Brain, Neuroscience, Senses

The Autism Puzzle: What the Weizmann Institute is Doing to Solve It

 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now states that about 1 in 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and that ASDs are five times more common in boys (1 in 42) than girls (1 in 189). ASDs are a group of developmental disabilities characterized by impairment in thinking, feeling, language, and ability to relate to others. The condition’s cause or causes are still unclear, and seem to be multiply determined – for example, a combination of genetic and environmental factors could be to blame.

In light of these worrisome statistics and the tremendous impact ASDs can have on the diagnosed person, their family, and society, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science are investigating autism as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Autism is frequently symbolized by a puzzle, and the Institute seeks to find all the missing pieces in the hope of providing earlier diagnosis and better treatments.

Weizmann’s latest research approaches the condition from a number of fresh angles:

    • Sniffing out autism. Prof. Noam Sobel and his lab revealed that autistic children apparently process smells differently than neurotypical children. Reporting on this finding, The New York Times said: “Most people instinctively take a big whiff when they encounter a pleasant smell and limit their breathing when they encounter a foul smell” – however, the autistic kids took much longer to stop inhaling an objectionable odor, with length of time being directly related to severity of the child’s social impairment. The sniff test correctly identified the autistic kids with 81% accuracy, and the team hopes that it can help diagnose autism at a very young age, which would allow for earlier intervention. The beauty of the test? It involves simply breathing.

 

    • Autistic brains are highly individual. Characterizing how the autistic brain functions is challenging, with often contradictory results: for example, some studies show a lack of synchronization between parts of the autistic brain that typically work in tandem, while other studies found over-synchronization in the brains of those with ASD. Now, Prof. Rafael Malach and doctoral student Avital Hahamy have shown that both results may be true.

      They found that while the brains of non-autistic children showed similar patterns of connectivity, those with ASD had very individual patterns. The differences may reflect the way we engage with the world: while neurotypical children tend to have similar, more standardized ways of interacting with people and the environment, the brains of autistic kids revealed more varied and individualized experiences. Further research could help develop means of early diagnosis and improved treatment.

 

    • Shedding light on autism. Dr. Ofer Yizhar is one of just a handful of pioneers in the young field of optogenetics, which allows scientists to study the workings of the brain at the neuronal level, actually turning individual cells on and off with a tiny beam of light. The brain holds many mysteries – such as why some people develop autism – and as Dr. Yizhar says, its “complexity is especially daunting when we look at a higher brain area like the cortex (the outer shell of the brain); it contains interconnected networks that are widely distributed, and we think that disorders like schizophrenia and autism might originate there.” Optogenetic tools have already enabled scientists to “switch on” autistic behavior in mice – and then reverse it. This truly cutting-edge research could lead to an entirely new understanding of autism.

 

  • Social behavior and autism. Neurobiologist Dr. Tali Kimchi and her team researched social behavior in mice, seeking insight into how social animals – like mice and humans – gain dominance over one another. They put different strains of mice together in a communal house – then left them to their own devices. Within 24 hours, leaders emerged – including a “king.” An automated system the team created was able to identify individual mice and even predict their actions and preferences.

    Then Dr. Kimchi did the experiment again – this time mixing in “autistic” mice (those who showed little social engagement and rigid behavior). The system easily singled out these mice by identifying their movements, patterns, and public behavior. Interestingly, when the team did the experiment with just the autistic mice, no leader emerged – or, if one did, he was quickly overthrown. The new automated system could be particularly useful for providing insight into the societal aspects of autism – one of the condition’s defining traits.

Autism touches us all in some way. This April, for Autism Awareness Month, please help these creative, insightful, boundary-pushing Weizmann scientists solve the puzzle of autism.