The Medical Independent blog takes a look at the more unconventional niches in science and research
Screening for autism
A computer algorithm has been developed that can detect autism in high-risk children earlier and so improve their care pathways.
A study involving almost 150 children saw researchers use MRI brain scans of the children when they were aged six months, one year and two years old. Among the children who were considered high-risk, for example those with a sibling who had autism, the algorithm was able to identify those who would go on to receive a diagnosis of autism with an accuracy of 80 per cent.
The researchers, based in the University of North Carolina’s Institute for Developmental Disabilities, US, noted that in children with a predicted diagnosis of autism, the brain’s surface grew faster than other children and developed more and deeper folds.
The authors acknowledged that the system of identification may not be a practical tool for widespread use, but could be useful in the early identification of high-risk children. The research was published last month in Nature.
Meanwhile, a separate, small study has shown that faecal transplant is promising in the treatment of children with a confirmed diagnosis of autism.
There is a growing awareness of the link between gastrointestinal illness and behavioural problems and in this study, 18 children with autism and moderate-to-severe gastrointestinal disease were give faecal transplants and displayed improvement in their symptoms for up to eight weeks after the procedure.
Lead author Dr Anne Gregory of Ogio State University, US, commented: “Transplants are working for people with other gastrointestinal problems. And, with autism, gastrointestinal symptoms are often severe, so we thought this could be potentially valuable.
“Following treatment, we found a positive change in GI symptoms and neurological symptoms overall.”
In their study, which was published recently in Microbiome, the authors said the results should be interpreted with caution due to the potential for placebo effect and pointed to the need for a larger study on the subject.
Long life getting longer
The current burden of chronic disease due to an ageing worldwide population is set to be dwarfed in the coming decades, according to a recent study by Imperial College London, UK, in collaboration with the World Health Organisation.
Population ageing trends in a number of Western and developing countries were studied, including Germany, Australia, Canada, the UK and US, as well as the Czech Republic, Poland and Mexico.
They predicted that a woman born in 2030 in the UK will have an average life expectancy of 85.3 years, while UK men born in that year can expect to live to be 82.5 years old.
However, of all the nations studied, people born in the US in 2030 will have the lowest life expectancy among the high-income countries — 79.5 and 83.3 years for men and women, respectively — and will be similar to the life expectancy of people in Mexico.
Among those born in 2030 in Europe, French women (88.6 years) and Swiss men (84 years) will have the highest life expectancy.
Remarkably, the authors noted that women in Korea born in 2030 will live an additional 27.5 years and have an average life expectancy of 90 years.
Prof Majid Ezzati, lead researcher, said: “We repeatedly hear that improvements in human longevity are about to come to an end. Many people used to believe that 90 years is the upper limit for life expectancy, but this research suggests we will break the 90-year barrier. I don’t believe we’re anywhere near the upper limit of life expectancy — if there even is one.”
Prof Ezzati continued: “Men traditionally had unhealthier lifestyles, and so shorter life expectancies. They smoked and drank more and had more road traffic accidents and homicides. However, as lifestyles become more similar between men and women, so does their longevity.”
The full study was published recently in The Lancet.
A new initiative is to be launched in the Netherlands that will allow clinicians and forensic scientists to observe and better understand the gradual decomposition of organisms.
In the field, known as ‘taphonomical’ research, scientists will bury cadavers that have been donated to medical research to gain insights while observing their gradual decomposition.
The corpses will be buried a maximum of one metre deep in a 500m2 plot in Amsterdam.
It will be the latest addition to a network of such facilities around the world and will be used by law enforcement agencies and academics. Australia opened a similar facility in 2016 and the US already has six such research centres, commonly referred to as ‘body farms’.
Dr Dawnie Steadman, Director of the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Centre, recently explained to Science that geography and local climate are important factors in crime forensics. “I think there are very good reasons to open one in Holland, and in other places in Europe,” she said.
“What we do in Tennessee is not directly transferable to Holland, or England, or South America, or Africa, for that matter.”