Your taxpayer dollars at work in the Autism Centers for Excellence Awards

About two weeks ago, the National Institute of Health announced part of the government’s commitment to autism research through the ACE projects, or Autism Centers for Excellence.  Highly competitive and intensely scrutinized, these 5 year projects all investigates areas of autism aimed at helping people with ASD and their families.  This week’s podcast summaries them, discusses how they interact and complement each other, and explains how they are going to affect the lives of people with autism.

Oxytocin: hitting a small nail with a giant sledgehammer?

This week’s podcast is inspired by a new study in PNAS thatlooked at the role of methylation of the oxytocin receptor in social behavior in people without autism.  Together with studies of the brains of people with autism, it suggests that filling the brains with oxytocin may not be the best approach for treating social impairments.  Instead, compounds that turn on or turn off the genes that control oxytocin may be more appropriate, and it also may help explain variability in why some people respond to oxytocin treatment, and why others do not.   Also, scientific technology has a new way of studying the influence of the environment on brain development.

What came first? Impaired social behaviors or something else that changes social behavior?

This week is a more philosophical, ideological discussion of the origins of social behaviors inspired by review articles written by Mayada Elsabbagh at McGill University and Boaz Barak and Guoping Feng at MIT. The focus of these papers are: when social behaviors emerge, and what brain regions are responsible for their existence. While Dr. Elsabbagh thinks of the question in terms of when behaviors and symptoms emerge in infancy, Drs. Barak and Feng consider the issue by comparing autism to Williams Syndrome. Williams Syndrome is very similar to autism except people with WS are hyper social and empathetic and sometimes gregarious. One tiny change on one area of one gene makes all the difference. This podcast doesn’t settle the question, but hopefully shows you listeners why there is a debate and how it is important for people with autism.