The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

April 27, 2023

Autism and ENT infections

Analyzing health outcomes of 10,000 children born in Bristol, England, in the early 1990s, researchers at the U.K.’s University of Bristol found that common indicators of ear and upper respiratory tract infection are more frequent in young children later diagnosed with autism or who have “extreme levels of autistic traits.” These associations may be important, the researchers say, because the signs of ear-nose-throat infections may be early markers of increased autism risk. “They may inform the origins of autism, or they may highlight co-occurring conditions that if treated may lead to a better quality of life for children with autism,” they write. (Note: The complicated science and thorny ethics of early detection of autism was also the subject of a proto.life investigative feature earlier this month.) BMJ Open

A simple blood test could maximize the efficiency of your daily medicine

One of the keys to personalized or precision medicine is data. Knowing your genomic risk profile, the specific genetic makeup of your tumor, or the exact pattern of metabolic changes in your bloodstream enables you and your doctors to use the modern tools of precision medicine and make the most of your disease diagnosis, treatment, or prevention. A new study by researchers at University of Groningen in the Netherlands suggests another piece of data that could help maximize the impact of clinical therapies —circadian changes to melatonin levels. They showed they could use machine learning to estimate the fluctuations in these levels throughout the day from just one or two optimally timed blood samples. If this proves relevant, it could help inform the best schedule for individuals to take their medication for maximal benefit—an approach known as “clocking the drug.” PNAS

The electric pill

Researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have developed a capsule they call an “electoceutical.” Inspired in its design by the water-wicking skin of the “thorny devil” lizard Moloch horridus, the capsule is capable of displacing fluids in the stomach. Wrapped in wires, it can then induce an electric current that modulates nerve cells inside the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. In experiments involving pigs, they showed that the currents can stimulate the release of the hormone ghrelin. “We anticipate that this device could be used to treat metabolic, GI, and neuropsychiatric disorders noninvasively with minimal off-target effects,” they write. Science Robotics

Left: An ingestible “electroceutical” capsule capable of stimulating the release of the ghrelin hormone. Courtesy J. McRae/MIT. Right: image of Moloch horridus. M.c.c.1999, CC BY-SA 4.0

Mobile vaccine production

One of the problems with distributing COVID-19 vaccines around the world is cold storage. The need to keep fragile RNA vaccines frozen so they remain potent is a tough logistical challenge. Another is the lack of health workers at the end of the distribution chain to administer the shots. Now scientists at MIT have a solution they say could address both problems. They developed a mobile printer for fabricating microneedle patches containing a vaccine. In laboratory studies they showed the patches are shelf-stable, keeping RNA vaccines viable at room temperature for months. They say the patches are so simple to administer, people could potentially vaccinate themselves in low-income settings. If the approach proves effective in remote field settings, it could be used to more effectively distribute vaccines for future outbreaks of variant coronavirus strains or other infectious diseases. Nature Biotechnology

The most heart-healthy diets, ranked

A panel of experts convened by the American Heart Association has issued a statement this week ranking 10 popular types of diets in the United States on a heart-healthy scale. Reviewing available clinical studies involving these diets, the group places them into four tiers. Some, including the Mediterranean, Nordic, and Baltic diets—with their abundance of veggies, nuts, lean meats, and fish—fared well, making the top tier in terms of cardiovascular health. Others like the Atkins and paleo diets, which restrict fruit, whole grains, and legumes—but not saturated fats—did poorly. They were ranked among the lowest in terms of heart health. However, the statement is intended to guide doctors and consumers solely on the basis of the cardiovascular health merits of the diets, the experts write, without consideration for other significant factors, such as cost, or the ability to help someone lose weight for instance. Circulation

The deep meaning of selfies

Researchers at Ohio State University in Columbus have analyzed why people choose to take photos as selfies rather than shoot a scene straight from the camera, and they have found the difference amounts to meaning. Photographing a scene with a camera as you see it better depicts the scene itself, but capturing the same scene as a selfie allows people to better connect with the deeper meaning of the photographed event in their lives. Analyzing the results of six studies, the researchers found that people instinctively do one or the other depending on their goal for the photograph—whether to capture a scene or to capture a memory. They also found how well people like their photos is determined by whether the selfie versus non-selfie perspective matches that goal. Social Psychological and Personality Science