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

June 2, 2022

Autistic brains disentangled with AI

Understanding the neurological basis of autism spectrum disorder is complicated by the fact that just as the symptoms and severity of autism vary from person to person, so do the physiologies of people’s brains—and often for completely unrelated reasons, like genetics or environmental causes. Now researchers at Boston College have used deep learning to disentangle neuroanatomical variations related to autism from other types of variations in brain physiology. This allowed them to correlate differences in brain physiology due to autism with individual symptoms of the disease. The work suggests that people with autism do not cluster into distinct subtypes based on neuroanatomy but fall along a continuum of variations affecting distinct brain regions, which has been an ongoing debate in the field. Science

How drumming helped autistic teens in clinical trial

In unrelated work, researchers at King’s College London split 36 adolescents with autism into two groups—one group was given eight weeks of drum training while the other was not. The results showed that improved drumming performance in the test group after the two months was associated with significant reductions in hyperactivity and inattention difficulties. Using fMRI, they also showed that the drum training strengthened functional connectivity in the relevant brain regions responsible for governing inhibitory control and action outcome monitoring. PNAS

Neuron-inspired robotic skin

Researchers at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, have designed a robotic hand outfitted with a prototype, state-of-the-art electronic skin. The skin is embedded with an array of 168 zinc oxide nanowires that act as synaptic transistors, lending the hand touch sensitivity. The electronic skin is able to process stimuli locally without having to send signals to a central computer, improving processing time and data handling—and it is capable of learned responses. The researchers predict it could “gradually acquire a human body-like pain reflex.” Science Robotics

Ravinder Dahiya

Digital twins meet food supply chain problems

Despite how rugged the steel-links metaphor of “supply chain” sounds, the weakest link in our global produce supply is often the food itself. Fresh fruits, for instance, have to be maintained at an unforgivingly narrow temperature range: Too cold, and the flesh becomes dry or mealy; too hot and the flies move in. It’s hard to predict the quality of a piece of fruit from when it’s picked to when it hits store shelves because of all the uneven links in the chain—delays at port, refrigerator fluctuations, power failures, and bad weather. But now researchers at EMPA, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in St. Gallen, Switzerland, showed they can use digital twin technology to accurately predict the quality of oranges as they wend their way from grove to grocery, coupling sensor data aboard 47 commercial shipping crates with computers to monitor citrus quality in real time. Nature Food

Sprinter’s gene makes mice jump higher

The critical action of tendons in athletic performance has taken on increased significance thanks to a new study from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Focused on a gene called PIEZO1, the study found that mice with a gain-of-function variant of this gene, known as E756del, had stronger and more elastic tendons, more instantaneous power and could jump higher and run faster than normal mice with the same muscle mass. The same gene variant was more common in a population of 91 Jamaican sprinters compared to 108 non-athletes from the same country. “These findings may contribute to the development of novel preventive and therapeutic strategies for common musculoskeletal disorders, as well as deterioration during aging,” the researchers write. Science Translational Medicine

Editor’s note: proto.life’s editorial director Jason Socrates Bardi wrote press releases about one of the senior authors of this study at Scripps Research from 2000–2005.

Intergenerational effects of parenting style

Analyzing saliva data from 1,000 Filipino men in a long-term study that began in 1983, researchers at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana have found a link between the boys’ family life as adolescents and their adult levels of testosterone. Boys whose fathers had more involvement in their care during adolescence had lower testosterone as adults, the researchers found, compared to boys whose fathers were less involved or did not live with them during adolescence. Low testosterone in men is linked to depression and can adversely affect sex drive, sperm production, and muscle strength. The possible intergenerational effect of parenting style was independent of any behavior that could influence testosterone, like sexual activity or the boys own parenting activity when they were older. PNAS

Babies begin learning their vowels at birth

Doctors at Ningbo University, Peking University, and Shenzhen University in China used a noninvasive imaging technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to show changes in the brains of 66 newborns that reflect the neonates’ learning of vowel sounds within hours of emerging from the womb. They showed that starting at just three hours after birth, the infants could begin to discriminate natural vowels from backward vowels—a baby step in their language acquisition. This builds on previous research showing that infants prefer the sound of human speech to other non-linguistic sounds and that newborns favor their own mother’s voice over other women. But as most parents will tell you, if listening begins at birth, it definitely ends in the teenage years. Nature Human Behavior