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

September 23, 2021

The lipidome cometh

Our bodies are filled with a wide variety of constituent lipid, or fat, molecules—some 600 different types can be found in the bloodstream alone. And scientists know that the distribution and metabolism of these fats may underlie the pathologies of certain disease states in the same way that the aberrant expression of proteins does for others. But analyzing the “lipidome” is difficult because it cannot be done in a high-throughput manner. Hoping to create a tool to make this easier, scientists at the University of Leipzig characterized thousands of lipids within fatty white adipose tissues of both lean and obese people and created a reference resource they say will pave the way for analyzing lipidomes in other human tissues. Cell Reports Medicine

Online behaviors could reveal teen suicide risk

Suicides among teenagers have skyrocketed since the 1990s, and a compelling question for parents and educators is how to spot early warning signs and prevent it. Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the content of emails, websites visited, and videos viewed by 227 children who were flagged by existing monitoring programs for severe suicide risk and reported to school administrators. Comparing the previous emails and online activity of these children to 1,135 same-age students in the same geographic areas, they found correlations between eight earlier online risk factors and later suicidal behaviors. The identification of these risk factors—including exposure to cyberbullying, evidence of depression, access to sexual content, and the use of profanity—may help steer youth suicide prevention programs. JAMA Network Open

Mouth microbes make healthy greens taste yucky

Science won’t let children off the hook from eating their broccoli anytime soon, but it may very well explain why they hate it so much. Apparently when anyone eats cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, kale, and broccoli, enzymes in their saliva released by bacteria in their mouths mix with the crunchy greens, react with chemicals in the crucifers, and produce sulfur-containing odorous volatile compounds that can make the experience awful. What’s more, researchers at Commonwealth Scientific and Industry Research Organization in Australia discovered that parents and children produced similar amounts of volatiles, presumably because they share similar oral microbiomes. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry

Early interventions for autism prove effective in clinical trial

Despite the fact that symptoms often appear much earlier, autism spectrum disorder is typically not diagnosed in children before the age of three, a gap that represents a lost opportunity for treatment during the first years of life, when the brain is rapidly developing and clinical interventions may have a greater impact. Now in a clinical trial involving 103 infants, a team at the Telethon Kids Institute of the University of Western Australia in Perth has shown that giving preemptive intervention to kids with early signs of autism starting at nine months reduced the severity of their later symptoms and lowered the odds of their receiving a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder at age three. JAMA Pediatrics

Editor’s note: proto.life CEO Jane Metcalfe is a board member of the Human Vaccines Project, a nonprofit organization that has partnered with the Telethon Kids Institute.

Olfactory connectome uncovered in rats

The way in which humans and other mammals respond to smells could be affected by how neuronal structures outside the olfactory system encode and store olfactory stimuli, according to a new study by researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany. Stimulating the olfactory bulbs of rats and using fMRI to observe which neuronal structures respond to the stimulation, they analyzed gene expression in the most active regions and found evidence of the recruitment of several non-olfactory structures, including the reward centers of the brain. The uncover of this “olfactory connectome” indicates that the brain’s reward and aversion systems likely play a key role in olfactory memory formation. Cerebral Cortex

When hospital mergers actually improve health outcomes

One fifth of Americans live in rural communities served by hospitals that over the last two decades have faced staff shortages, shrinking populations, economic hardships, and greater risk of failure than their urban counterparts. Acquisitions and mergers of many of those rural hospitals into larger health systems has been the predictable outcome, raising the concern that patient care might suffer from corporate takeover. But an analysis of 438 rural hospitals in 32 states from 2009–2016 shows that patients at the merged hospitals who were admitted for heart failure, stroke, hip fractures, and other indications actually had lower mortality than their counterparts at hospitals that remained independent, according to researchers at the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and IBM Watson Health. JAMA

Mass spectrometry for blood detection of Alzheimer’s disease pathology

Doctors at Skåne University Hospital in Sweden have performed a head-to-head comparison of eight different blood assays designed to detect the pathological biomarker amyloid-β in people with Alzheimer’s disease—a challenging but potentially transformative approach for diagnosing and monitoring the disease that could improve patient care and speed up clinical trials of new drugs. Examining plasma samples taken from 408 people from 2010–2014, they found that blood tests incorporating the analytical technique of mass spectrometry performed better than traditional blood immunoassays and may be sensitive enough to detect brain amyloid-β pathology in people with Alzheimer’s disease. JAMA Neurology

Molecular profiling of prostate cancer via machine learning

Researchers at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston have developed a deep neural network that can parse the molecular profiles of prostate tumors and predict which ones may be more clinically aggressive. Dubbed “P-NET,” the algorithm outperformed other machine learning models and accurately identified tumors that were treatment resistant and metastatic—work that could enable the discovery of new therapeutic targets and help predict worse outcomes in men with prostate cancer. Nature