2011 Science News of the Year: Body & Brain


Sifting through autism’s tangled web

Each person with an autism spectrum disorder has a different disease, yet some commonalities exist, a flurry of studies reveals (SN: 8/13/11, p. 20). Though the finds don’t point to a clear cause or a cure, they inch researchers closer to a deeper understanding of the baffling disorders.

By sifting through genetic differences in a large group of children, researchers find numerous changes that could contribute to autism spectrum disorder (SN Online: 6/8/11). Screening more than 1,000 families, including parents and unaffected siblings, reveals duplicated and missing portions of DNA. Such changes may account for 5 to 8 percent of autism cases.

Other research has focused on gene and protein activity in a person with autism. Hundreds of genes behave differently in the brains of people with autism (SN: 6/18/11, p. 5), and many of these genes are involved in nerve cell communication. Proteins that govern nerve cell behavior are probably important for the disorders too: Scientists have discovered new relationships between some key autism-related proteins and over 500 other proteins.

Although this laundry list of biochemical changes seems dauntingly complex, the results still represent a flood of progress in trying to understand autism, says child psychiatrist and geneticist Matthew State of Yale University School of Medicine. “These are all, in their own way, making a chink in the armor.” Laura Sanders

Against Alzheimer’s  Data link antidepressants to less of the ominous brain plaque associated with Alzheimer’s (SN: 9/10/11, p. 5). Other studies scrutinize A-beta’s role in the disease.

Stent risk  Brain stents used in patients at risk of stroke may do more harm than good: A study finds rates of death and stroke are higher among patients who receive the device than those who receive an aggressive course of medications alone (SN: 10/8/11, p. 14).

Malaria vaccine  African children who received the first vaccine against malaria to undergo wide-scale testing are about half as likely to come down with the disease over a 14-month period as those who didn’t receive the vaccine (SN Online: 10/19/11).

HPV for men  A study of men in North and South America finds that half carry human papillomavirus, known for causing cervical cancer in women (SN: 3/26/11, p. 12). The U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that preteen boys receive the HPV vaccine (SN Online: 10/26/11).

Ch-ch-ch-changes By charting the brain’s genetic activity from before birth to old age, two new studies reveal that all human brains use pretty much the same genes in the same way and that the brain continually remodels itself in predictable ways throughout life (SN: 11/19/11, p. 5).

Dream deciphered The contents of a person’s dream are revealed by a brain scan for the first time. Monitoring the brain of a man who has unusual control over his dreaming brings researchers closer to understanding how the brain spins its nightly yarns (SN: 12/17/11, p. 10).

Cell phone vibes A 50-minute call boosts activity in brain regions near the ear where a cell phone is located, research suggests (SN: 3/26/11, p. 13).

Brain on z’s  Electrodes implanted in the brains of rats kept up four hours past their usual bedtime show that some cells go to sleep while others remain active (SN: 5/21/11, p. 9). Two other studies in fruit flies confirm that sleep plays a central role in solidifying memories and preparing the brain for new learning (SN Online: 6/23/11).

Armadillo infector  People infected with leprosy in the United States often have the same previously unknown strain of the microbe Mycobacterium leprae that is carried by armadillos, strengthening a long-held assumption that armadillos can infect people directly (SN: 5/21/11, p. 9).

To the brain  A single drug might create a temporary opening in the blood-brain barrier, allowing for new medicines to treat neurological diseases (SN Online: 9/13/11).

Heart tracker  Studies suggest that a blood compound called cardiac troponin T could serve as a risk indicator for heart disease (SN: 1/15/11, p. 14).

NSAID risk  The popular anti-inflammatory drugs ibuprofen and naproxen could contribute to the risk of miscarriage when taken early in pregnancy, researchers find (SN: 11/5/11, p. 14).

Degrees of good  A study suggests that levels of HDL, the good cholesterol, may not be the most important factor in protecting against clogged arteries and cardiovascular disease; HDL’s efficiency at removing fats is a better predictor of who will develop heart disease (SN: 2/12/11, p. 16).

XMRV exonerated  A study fails to confirm a link between chronic fatigue syndrome and a family of viruses that includes XMRV. Nine labs — including the two that originally identified the connection — could not reliably detect the viruses in blood cells from patients with the mysterious and controversial condition (SN: 10/22/11, p. 5).

New tubes  Blood vessels grown using human cells as factories pass a test in baboons and dogs, suggesting that natural-tissue vessels could be produced for kidney dialysis or heart bypass surgery (SN: 2/26/11, p. 11).

Ketamine explained  The anesthetic ketamine fights depression by quickly boosting levels of a brain compound that has been linked to the condition (SN: 7/16/11, p. 17).

Preterm aftereffects  Infants born prematurely face a higher risk of dying in early adulthood than babies born at full term, scientists report. The higher mortality risk also shows up when the babies are preschool age (SN Online: 9/20/11).

Two brain slots  Like side-by-side computer RAM cards, the left and the right hemispheres of the brain store information separately, helping explain why people can remember only a handful of objects at one time (SN: 7/30/11, p. 10).

Rerouted for feeling Amputees whose sense of touch was rerouted from their missing limbs view their prosthetics as part of the body (SN: 2/26/11, p. 10).

Apnea-dementia link A study of women 65 and older finds that those with seriously disordered breathing have an increased risk of developing mild cognitive impairment or dementia in subsequent years (SN: 9/10/11, p. 16).

Immune booster calms  An immune protein once pursued as a treatment to rev up the body’s defenses, interleukin-2, may be able to halt or reverse aberrant immune reactions where standard treatments have failed (SN Online: 11/30/11).

Breast cancer drug  A drug called exemestane, which inhibits the manufacture of estrogen, can lower the likelihood of breast cancer among healthy women at risk of developing the disease (SN: 7/2/11, p. 16).

Supermemory  People who can remember every day of their lives in detail have more bulk in certain brain regions, one of which has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (SN: 12/3/11, p. 9).

Hypnosis confirmed  A glassy gaze that jumps around in bizarre patterns may be a foolproof sign of a hypnotic trance, researchers report (SN: 12/17/11, p. 10).

Between the ears The high-pitched ringing, squealing, hissing, clicking, roaring, buzzing or whistling in the ears that can drive tinnitus sufferers crazy may be a by-product of the brain turning up the volume to cope with subtle hearing loss (SN: 11/5/11, p. 14).

No fear here  A rare genetic disease that destroyed a middle-aged woman’s amygdala made her immune to fear, researchers find (SN: 1/15/11, p. 14).