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Can companion animals, such as the Guinea Pig shown, help children with autism reduce their social anxiety levels?

Animals' Presence May Ease Social Anxiety in Kids with Autism

When animals are present, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have lower readings on a device that detects anxiety and other forms of social arousal when interacting with their peers. The device measures the speed at which an unnoticeable electric current passes through the skin, and is considered to be an indicator of anxiety.

According to a study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, companion animals—like dogs, cats or the guinea pigs in the study—may prove to be a helpful addition to treatment programs designed to help children with ASDs improve their social skills and interactions with other people.

The study, published online in Developmental Psychobiology, was conducted by Marguerite O'Haire, PhD, from the Center for the Human-Animal Bond in the College of Veterinary Medicine of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and colleagues in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

"Previous studies suggest that in the presence of companion animals, children with autism spectrum disorders function better socially," said James Griffin, PhD, of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "This study provides physiological evidence that the proximity of animals eases the stress that children with autism may experience in social situations."

This study is among several funded under a public-private partnership established in 2008 between NICHD and the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, a division of Mars Inc., to establish a human-animal interaction research program to support studies relevant to child development, health, and the therapeutic use of animals.

A Patient's Budding Cortex—In a Dish?

Cancer cell cluster balancing on the tip of a post within a microchip.
Photo courtesy of Sarioglu et al., Nature Methods.

A patient tormented by suicidal thoughts gives his psychiatrist a few strands of his hair. She derives stem cells from them to grow budding brain tissue harboring the secrets of his unique illness in a petri dish. She then uses the information to genetically engineer a personalized treatment to correct his brain circuit functioning. Just sci-fi? Yes, but…

An evolving "disease-in-a-dish" technology, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is bringing closer the day when such a seemingly futuristic personalized medicine scenario might not seem so far-fetched. Scientists have perfected mini cultured 3-D structures that grow and function much like the outer mantle—the key working tissue, or cortex—of the brain of the person from whom they were derived. Strikingly, these "organoids" buzz with neuronal network activity. Cells talk with each other in circuits, much as they do in our brains.

Sergiu Pasca, MD, of Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, and colleagues, debuted what they call "human cortical spheroids," May 25, 2015 online in the journal Nature Methods.

"There's been amazing progress in this field over the past few years," said Thomas R. Insel, MD, Director of the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health, which provided most of the funding for the study. "The cortex spheroids grow to a state in which they express functional connectivity, allowing for modeling and understanding of mental illnesses. They do not even begin to approach the complexity of a whole human brain. But that is not exactly what we need to study disorders of brain circuitry. As we seek advances that promise enormous potential benefits to patients, we are ever mindful of the ethical issues they present."

Microchip Captures Clusters of Circulating Tumor Cells

Researchers have developed a microchip that can capture rare clusters of circulating tumor cells, which could yield important new insights into how cancer spreads. The work was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), part of the National Institutes of Health.

Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) are cells that break away from a tumor and move through a cancer patient's bloodstream. Single CTCs are extremely rare, typically fewer than 1 in 1 billion cells. These cells can take up residence in distant organs, and researchers believe this is one mode by which cancer spreads. Clusters of circulating tumor cells are even less common in the blood, but recent studies suggest they may be more likely to cause metastases than single circulating tumor cells.

"Very little is known about CTC clusters and their role in the progression and metastasis of cancer. This unique technology presents an exciting opportunity to capture these exceptionally rare groups of cells for further analysis in a way that is minimally-invasive," said NIBIB Director Roderic I. Pettigrew, PhD, MD. "This is the kind of breakthrough technology that could have a very large impact on cancer research."

Summer 2015 Issue: Volume 10 Number 2 Page 28