July 15, 2011 10:18 pm

Sums add up for autism theory

Experts find that the disorder and its milder form, Asperger’s syndrome, are more common in an IT-rich area
A child's hand playing with numbers

Research by autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen links the disorder to a talent for maths and IT

A child's hand playing with numbers

The view of autism as a “geek syndrome” that particularly affects people who are involved in maths, computing and information technology has been strengthened by research from Cambridge University.

A study led by Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism expert, provides the first clear statistical evidence that autism and its milder form, Asperger’s syndrome, are more common in an IT-rich area.

Baron-Cohen and Rosa Hoekstra, a Dutch researcher, analysed diagnostic information on 62,500 children in three similar sized regions in the Netherlands: Eindhoven, Utrecht and Haarlem. They found that “autism spectrum conditions” (ASC) were higher in Eindhoven (229 per 10,000 children) than in Haarlem (84 per 10,000) and Utrecht (57 per 10,000).

Eindhoven is the country’s main technology centre; 30 per cent of the region’s jobs are in IT and computing. The comparable proportion in both Haarlem and Utrecht is about 16 per cent.

As a control, the study also analysed diagnoses of two other childhood developmental disorders, dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Both showed similar prevalence levels, suggesting there is something special about autism in Eindhoven. The results are published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The researchers predicted that autism would be more common in populations geared towards “systemising”, the drive to analyse how systems work and to predict, control and build systems. These skills are required in disciplines such as engineering, physics, computing and mathematics.

Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre had previously discovered evidence for a familial association between a talent for systemising and autism, in that fathers and grandfathers of children with the condition are over-represented in engineering. The team had also found that mathematicians often have a sibling with autism, and students in the natural and technological sciences, including maths, show a higher number of autistic traits.

“These results are in line with the idea that in regions where parents gravitate towards jobs that involve strong ‘systemising’, such as the IT sector, there will be a higher rate of autism among their children, because the genes for autism may be expressed in first degree relatives as a talent in systemising,” Baron-Cohen says. “The results also have implications for explaining how genes for autism may have persisted in the population gene pool, as some of these genes appear linked to adaptive, advantageous traits.”

A follow-up study will be needed to validate the results and rule out the possibility autism is better diagnosed in Eindhoven than in the other regions. But the results chime with anecdotal evidence from the US of high autism rates in tech-rich places such as California’s Silicon Valley.

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Stem cell researchers scent blood

An intensive scientific search for a synthetic substitute for human blood has been in progress for decades without success. Now the focus is switching from chemistry to biology and the use of stem cells to create blood that could be used for transfusions, reducing the need for blood donations.

Two separate collaborative research projects, based in the UK, are developing technology for turning stem cells into the large numbers of red blood cells, that carry oxygen around the body.

Seeing red

A molecule behind sunburn pain has been identified. The “chemokine” alerts nerve fibres when we get too much sun. King’s College London scientists say targeting the molecule could lead to a way to treat the pain.

One team, based in Scotland and funded by a £2.9m grant from the Wellcome Trust, is working with human embryonic stem cells. The other – a £2m project led by Liverpool University and funded by the European Commission – has the same aim but is starting with adult rather than embryonic stem cells.

The Scottish project will be making O-negative blood cells, a type that could in theory be used for almost any patient in need of blood.

“Some 2m units of blood are transfused each year in Britain and we are reliant on donors to meet the demand,” says Marc Turner, professor of cellular therapy at Edinburgh University. “With stem cells we have the potential to create an unlimited supply of infection-free blood, which would address the issue of a shortage of donors.”

The European project, which involves centres in the UK, Netherlands, Spain and Germany, aims to produce bulk blood from stem cells in the laboratory within three years, with a means of scaling up production for public health services in five years. The team is also developing a novel bioreactor that will mimic the tissues where blood cells are produced in the body.

“This research is still at laboratory stage,” says John Hunt, head of Liverpool’s tissue engineering centre. “We will not be able to ‘grow’ blood in the NHS for some years yet, so it is absolutely vital that people continue to donate blood for the foreseeable future.”

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Search and rescue by the worm that turns

Robotic researchers love to take inspiration from the natural world. The latest example is a giant robotic worm from Leeds University that can wriggle its way round obstacles.

The “wormbot” is modelled on the nematode C. elegans, which uses a very simple nervous system to control the way it moves. But, with a length of 2m, the wormbot is 2,000 times larger than C. elegans.

Its designer, Jordan Boyle, hopes that wormbots will be used by search and rescue crews to send heat-seeking equipment into collapsed buildings or deliver aid to trapped survivors. “A future version of this robot could potentially navigate through irregular gaps and holes in buildings that had been damaged by fire, explosions or earthquakes,” he says.

Unlike its natural counterpart, which has no skeleton, the robot has a rigid backbone, just like a snake. But a series of springs along its body give the robot worm-like flexibility.

The system driving the robot forward is essentially the same as that of the C. elegans nematode – though with a few tweaks to improve its performance.

The wormbot is not interested in its surroundings and simply wants to wriggle from side to side. When it hits an obstacle, it keeps on going. “The combination of the flexible control system and the ‘bendy’ body means that the robot adapts blindly to any obstacles that are preventing it from moving forward. Basically the wormbot is thinking: ‘Go, go, go!’” Boyle says.

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Improvements in sight for airport scanning

Security scanning at airports is not only frustrating for passengers. It is a tense task that strains both eyes and patience for the screeners who spend their days searching X-ray images of hand baggage for anything that might be a gun, knife or explosive.

A project funded by the US Department of Homeland Security is looking for better ways to present the scanned images so that screeners can more easily distinguish something suspicious from the plethora of innocent objects in bags, briefcases and rucksacks.

The research, which was demonstrated at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition last week, points towards two conclusions.

One is that screeners need more help distinguishing between the colours used by airport X-ray machines to denote different materials: typically blue for metal, orange for organic compounds.

Visual cognition specialists at Southampton University found that when people are looking for two different colours, they spend time looking at a disproportionately large number of objects that are unlike either target. This raises the surprising possibility that it might be faster for screeners to conduct two separate searches: one for metal threats (guns and knives) and a second for explosives.

The second possible change is to display the scans as three-dimensional images. These show separate layers at different depths within a bag, making it easier to distinguish objects than the flat 2D images used today.

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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douglas coupland

An ilustration by Jason Ford depicting Silicon Valley as a golden city ©Jason Ford The Valley

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