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

November 3, 2022

A spectacular view of the brain and a complicated new molecular view of autism

As abstract art, the human brain can be gorgeous. We could stare at the color rendering of hippocampal nerves the Human Brain Project produced for this week’s Science for hours. It’s better than fall foliage! On the other hand, examining the brain more purposefully, to expand our knowledge, can be intimidating. The closer you look, the more complicated it can get, as the results of a massive, decade-long study of brain changes in people with autism spectrum disorder shows. Sequencing RNA from 725 post-mortem brain samples spanning 11 cortical areas taken from 49 people with autism and 54 matched neurotypical controls, researchers at UCLA found differences in gene expression in brain regions affecting social behavior and language, as expected. But unexpectedly, they also found widespread differences in virtually all the brain regions they studied, including broad gene expression differences in the primary sensory regions. Nature

Detail of a human brain section showing the architecture of fibers down to single axons in the hippocampus. Markus Axer and Katrin Amunts, INM-1, Forschungszentrum Jülich

On-demand gene therapy for epilepsy

An exciting breakthrough, at least in mice: For the first time, researchers at University College London have found a way to selectively inhibit overactive neurons causing seizures with gene therapy “on demand,” a strategy to downregulate hyperactive neurons without interfering with the activity of the surrounding neurons. They achieved this by using a gene promoter to drive the expression of Kv1.1 potassium channels specifically in hyperactive neurons and only for as long as they exhibit abnormal activity. In mice, they showed that this led to a persistent anti-epileptic effect without interfering with normal behaviors. It’s promising, they write, not only for epilepsy but also for other neuropsychiatric disorders where there are similar circuit hyperactivities—schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, migraines, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease. Science

Pain at age 44 predicts COVID at age 62

One of the most pernicious problems in American life, chronic pain afflicts as many as 100 million Americans, and its presence foreshadows future problems later in life. Sadly, pain in childhood is a strong predictor of pain in midlife, for instance. And now researchers at Dartmouth and University College have shown that people in Britain who suffer chronic pain at age 44 have worse health outcomes later in life. They looked at data from the National Child Development Survey (NCDS), which has followed 18,558 people since they were born during a single week in March 1958, in England, Scotland, and Wales, collecting surveys from them every five to seven years. The data shows those who suffered from chronic pain in 2002 had more pessimism about the future, higher joblessness in 2013, and a greater likelihood of catching COVID-19 in 2021. PLOS ONE

High-fat Western diet impairs developing immunity

An expecting mother’s diet is known to impact the in utero metabolic environment, but the extent to which a high-fat, unhealthy Western diet negatively impacts fetal development is not known directly—only through associations like the fact that babies born to obese mothers are more prone to infections. But why? A new study by researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center shows that Western diets impair the differentiation of hematopoietic stem cells and progenitor cells, which produce two key immune cells, macrophages and B lymphocytes. The experiments followed nine rhesus macaque monkey “controls” fed normal diets and four macaques on Western-style diets consisting of roughly half the protein and twice the fat. The monkeys with the poor diet gave birth to offspring with fewer B cells, among other differences. Stem Cell Reports

The neuroscience of puking

Researchers at the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing, Fudan University in Shanghai, and Guangzhou Medical University have identified how the brain senses toxic molecules in the gut and mounts a defensive response to perceived bacterial poisons by causing you to retch, feel sick, and vomit. They identified a specific set of gut-to-brain sensory neurons that transmit toxin-recognition signals to the brain. They worked out how neurons in the dorsal vagal complex of the brain then drive both retching and begin to condition the mind to avoid certain associated flavors. They also discovered that similar to food poisoning, chemotherapies appear to recruit the same brain circuits to initiate a defensive response—and induce their unfortunate side effects. Cell

The World Cup of complexity

With the World Cup set to start in less than a fortnight and the United States securing a spot on soccer’s highest stage for the first time in a decade, we were pleased to see a network theory analysis of players in three actual soccer matches that uncovers the underlying dynamics of defensive “marking.” We thought, Great! Americans excel at low-scoring defensive efforts. Could this help lift us past England to the quarterfinals? Then we saw the researchers hail from Ciudad University in Córdoba—Argentina. Arggh! The South Americans beat us every time on the field. Now they beat us on paper as well?! Physical Review E

How making daylight savings time permanent could save lives… of deer

Daylight savings has become a cherished tradition: You turn back your clocks in the fall, move them forward in the spring, become bombarded with endless media stories about how it’s a bad thing, and if you listen closely you’ll hear the faint bluster of members of Congress reintroducing the doomed, stalled, soon-to-die Sunshine Protection Act every two years. There’s no shortage of scientific support for doing away with changing the clocks—more sleep, less crime, fewer accidents, and lower energy bills—though interestingly sleep experts advocate we keep standard rather than daylight saving time. Now researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle are adding another: making daylight savings permanent would prevent some 36,550 deer-vehicle collisions and spare $1.2 billion in annual U.S. collision costs. Enough to move Congress? Don’t count on that extra hour of sleep just yet. Current Biology