Field of Science

The science public information officer: it's complicated

The glamorous life of a PIO. Via Wikimedia Commons.
So, as many of my graduate school friends would begin a story, I used to be a public information officer (PIO). I worked for a large state agency in a very large and populous state, an agency that had tens of thousands of employees. We ran a hugely popular ad campaign about (not) littering, a hugely popular program about picking up litter, and innumerable other public information programs that incorporated engineering, materials science, transportation innovations, conservation, archaeology, and environmental mitigation issues. 

We were responsible in that office--there were about a dozen of us--for all of that and for writing the innumerable press releases associated with any issue of statewide or national importance related to what this agency did. In addition, our work involved collecting the hundreds of regional PIOs together in an annual meeting that we arranged, a three-day workshop for training in everything from getting decent quotes from engineers to the one I led on writing feature and news stories (inverted pyramid!). In our spare time, we produced a 16-page tabloid newspaper for department employees, who eagerly awaited its appearance each month, and wrote speeches for whatever department hoity toities needed them.

This PIO job was one of my first right out of the gate with my English degree, although I'd done newswriting and interned at a high-profile glossy mag. As part of this job, which I had for about four years, I wrote hundreds and hundreds of news releases. Our basic process was to take a packet of information about whatever the department was promoting--anti-litter campaigns, environmental mitigation, political appointments--and turn it into a news release. After we'd finished our daily cycle of this, we'd walk the releases over to the state capitol building (so analog of us, yes?) where all the major outlets had their bureaus--AP, Dallas Morning News, Fort-Worth Star-Telegram (miss them), and many, many others--and give the hard copies of the release to whatever representative for the bureau happened to be handy. We knew our news media folk, and they knew us. How much has that changed, I wonder?

And here's what would happen. Texas was at that time full of small-town newspapers, probably run on a shoestring even then. We'd always collect clips related to anything about the department, and hundreds of times, I'd seen a release I'd written printed verbatim in these smaller papers. It was rare--I can't recall a specific incident--that these would pop up in toto in the larger papers, although I once remember one of my releases about the large and popular anti-litter campaign hitting the AP wire pretty much intact. We knew that the more "news like" and less "marketing like" we made those releases, the more likely that a lot of their content would make it into any story, in whole or in part.

Another thing we knew was that engineers in general do not give good quote. We had wholesale authorization to make quotes for the releases that sounded reasonable, usually attributed to the department director or commission head, both high profile in the state. On a few occasions, I had to attribute quotes to our then-governor, Ann Richards (oh, how we miss her)...for whom I also once wrote a speech, a part of which she actually used (it doesn't get more exciting than that for a state PIO grunt). In most cases, the person whom we attributed cast an eye over a packet of the releases and approved the quotes. Certainly, the governor's office, which was a careful bunch, did that. 

But most of the time, that casting resulted in no changes. In other words, the quotes came from us but received a quick approval from the quotee. Did she or he read them in detail, mull their accuracy, get out the red pen and reword what they had "said"? Very rarely. We were good at what we did.

Our process for writing releases and the information they included was subject to specific departmental rules, but those rules were not--and are not--universal. When I was in graduate school, our university had variable rules about who could talk to the news media and under what provenance. Indeed, the marching orders seemed to come down to specific researchers and their labs. The regulations governing who actually spoke to the news media, who saw quotes, where any publicly released information was vetted--they've always varied from university to university, and I have experience with four on the non-media side of things.

So...as my friends would say...when it comes to PIOs, there are a few issues worth considering. What are their respective institutional processes for, say, quoting people, vetting quotes, or even determining whether non-media representatives can speak to the news media? When a PIO gets a release out there, in science we no longer have the fellow sitting in his basement office in the capitol building taking hard copies; instead, we have online aggregators like Science Daily and PhysOrg, which should be clearly marked as such and whose existence I greatly appreciate for their aggregation services. Sometimes, small-time Websites or churnalism sites take these releases and reproduce them verbatim, just as those small-town newspapers did. The small-town newspapers never noted that these verbatim reproductions were news releases, but in the online world, a simple line of text will do it (so do it!). Often, writers on some sites may not take the release verbatim, but they'll take the quotes ("quoted in a news release about the research, so-and-so said")--I've done that myself--and that leads to the question, What is the real provenance of those quotes, and how much are they worth? Obviously, getting your own quote is preferable. 

And finally, there's the question of vetting. Sometimes, graduate students can't even get the attention of their advisors without waiting a week and trying multiple times. If a university doesn't have some policy for researchers about quick turnaround on news release content review, should a PIO wait for a week or two weeks until finally getting the OK on that? And how much of a researcher's input will be in line with the goal of disseminating an eye-catching, university-pleasing release about its output? 

I am writing this because I've been seeing some discussion on Twitter about how PIOs may distribute science-related news releases without obtaining a final approval from the researchers involved of how the science is presented. The simple, obvious answer would be, "Get them to look over it and confirm accuracy." But the real-life constraints of university policy, time, researcher reluctance or misunderstanding about media relations, variability in PIO scientific background, news cycles, and a number of other factors--including getting that quote--complicate the issue. I know quite a few science PIOs, and none of them just type up a news release and send it packing. In fact, their issues often are more focused on scientists who bypass them and their expertise and end up in a kerfuffle of some kind. 

As someone who was once on the PIO side of things and has been privy to a lot of sci-comm PIO concerns while serving on the conference committee for the National Association of Science Writers, I'm not going to argue against the need for review (there's your daily "duh"). But I'd like to hear from any PIO who doesn't ensure one way or the other that the science is accurately explained--who are you? And then I'd like to hear from PIOs what they think are the real stumbling blocks to getting good, timely releases to target outlets. Is it ensuring accuracy? Getting good quote? University regulations? Scientists bypassing the media office? And what are your struggles, as someone who is invested in communicating science, in ensuring a literate audience?

So....?

Science Online 2012: a touching moment

Badge now included!
First, let me get the word "seminal" out of the way. There was a key moment for me at Science Online 2012, but I am only using the word seminal here before moving on because referring to penile effluvia was practically de rigueur at this meeting. Indeed, I had not been there for 10 minutes before a certain Scicurious whipped out a smartphone and treated a cupcake-eating crowd around a hotel bar table to a video of someone honking off a goose. Even as a hardened scientist of the gonad-penis-investigating variety, I suddenly found cupcakes suddenly not so terribly appetizing.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me get back to the key moment. While many moments surrounding it at the Science Online open mic night were off-key--some more so than others--this moment involved a woman and a scientist and a science writer--all the same person--onstage, preparing to sing while accompanying herself alone, on guitar. In the soft spill of stage lights, one of the leading lights of the Science Online community (and singer/musician himself), was helping the performer ready the acoustics. A few feet away in the darkness of the bar, I was tired. The room had reached the extraordinary decibel maximum that I discovered was characteristic of all Science Online gatherings involving alcohol. I'd practically lost my voice after several hoarsely screamed, scarcely heard conversations. But my eyes still worked, so I watched the performers and clapped for them all because dammit, it takes some ovaries to put yourself out there like that.

I admire people who can put themselves out there. Every single person at Science Online does that in one way or another. Writing things publicly exposes you, whether you are a scientist or a science writer or a social media guru. Entering the social media maelstrom expands your exposure--and your vulnerability--in ways that I'm not sure people have fully and completely intercalated into the writerly DNA. And every single person in that room, in some way or another, had entered the breach with that exposure, unhelmeting their minds and folding back the armor on their vulnerability, all for what I think is the same reason: Love of science.

But they weren't at Science Online only because they loved science. They were there for another reason (I mean, besides the one that involves alcohol). Before the conference, close-up avatars of real faces or anime representations of same were, for many of us, the sole visual exposure we'd ever had to each other. Yet, via Twitter and blogs and Facebook and Google+ and whatever else is out there, we had all connected among ourselves. 

I've had remarkable DM conversations with Science Online attendees that started on Twitter and then went confidential, not to gossip but to share deep personal details...and always with someone I had never met in person. In this way, Twitter and other forms of social media had become the 21st century equivalent of engaging with people thousands of miles away through handwritten letters, of opening a heart and a mind to a distant yet trusted Other because of shared passions. Except now we connected through electrons passing at light speed with our innermost thoughts and fears, laid even more bare than our words.

So we converged in Raleigh, NC, in the name of a love of science, but something else drove those 450 people to book flights, travel thousands of real miles, leave families and work, rearrange schedules, and invest four days of their time into meeting each other, drinking themselves silly, talking themselves hoarse, tattooing their bodies, hugging Bora Zivkovik, and waxing to the point of near poesis about penises. 

That something else was, I realized that night at the open mic, a need to be with our own. It was a need to be in person with people who were for many of us, virtual family. People may scoff cynically at that attitude, but I'm not someone who uses that descriptive loosely. I admit, last year, I didn't get it like I did this year. But last year, I hadn't joined the virtual family as a cousin before stepping into the embodiment of it in Raleigh. It really is an oddly constructed, supportive, interactive, and occasionally collectively drunk family. A strangely candid and blunt but simultaneously respectful and loving family. I've seen people at other conferences. They compete. They argue. They bluster. They clique up. They shut up when they want to speak out. They sit and listen, sometimes in fuming silence, while luminaries tell them how the cow ate the cabbage, as my sainted mother is fond of saying. 

But at this conference, everyone spoke. And everyone listened. The level of respect and caring was, really, like nothing I've ever seen, much less among a group of 450 people, many of whom were experiencing one another's physical presence for the first time. It seems like an overstatement, but just as an example, in a session I moderated, I think that every single person attending spoke, offered an opinion, engaged in the discussion with passion and candor but also with respect. And in any session, even if not all voices could fit in, Twitter offered an oft-used outlet for voicing blunt opinions. For whatever reason, we were all comfortable enough among ourselves to say what we really thought, freely...and is there any greater relief for a writer?

And some of us took bravery a step further, beyond putting ourselves out there with our words. Some of us got up on stage in front of what must be among the most critical and critical thinking people on Earth. Some of us--not me--got up there anyway and sang hearts out at the open mic night. Maybe some were off key (ahem...ocean bloggers?)...maybe some sang very, very quietly. Many forgot the words, the chord progression, their drink. Yet they did it, trusting in their audience not to troll them, not to take advantage of that vulnerability, not to fuck with them.

And as I stood there, hoarse, tired, overbeered, and left only with my eyes to function, I felt that acceptance all around me and saw that moment, the key for me: as the woman scientist and science writer performer indicated she was ready to start, the Science Online luminary helping her reached out and very, very gently and comfortingly, briefly touched her arm in a natural and familial gesture of support. That was it. That was The Moment.

Which grew into a thousand such moments. I saw it repeated again and again over those brief days, that real-world reaching out, that natural connection made between already-friends who'd never or rarely met. That nanosecond of contact coalesced in a single brief, spotlit moment for me why we were all there, embodying the virtual world through which we'd been in touch before, making the mutual experience of our shared exposure a tangible and familial reality. We had come to meet Our Own, in person, to indulge fully and freely for a handful of days in what few others we know in real life probably tolerate for long.

Which included, of course...talking about duck penises.

What makes an expert dangerous?

Via WikiMedia Commons
Today, an autism parent tweeted a link to the @thinkingautism twitter account asking, "Do you know who Tetyana Obukhanych is?", and linking to a site called "Natural Immunity." I hadn't heard of her, so I went to the site, where I found that Obukhanych's goal in life, as stated there, is 
to fully grasp the impact vaccination has on our individual and population immunity and to master effective and safe measures for dealing with acute illness in the absence of vaccination.
Enormous tasks for a single person, I'd say. I'd argue that vaccination is already a safe and effective measure for preventing acute illness, which seems preferable to contracting an acute illness that kills people. It also seems that we did that whole "dealing with acute illness in the absence of vaccination" thing for millennia without much success with the "dealing" part. At any rate, obviously, this is Just Another Antivax Website. Or is it?

Some antivax sites began with parents. Some began with MDs or DOs or chiropractors out to make a buck. But this one? The person who runs this site has credentials. In fact, she has credentials in immunology. She is presumably one of the experts I referenced when I wrote about what's required to gain expertise in science. She has a PhD in immunology and says she is currently a postdoctoral fellow in immunology (ETA: although the immunology part of that is difficult to discern) at one of the premier research universities in the world. In other words, she's an expert. I'm going to have to modify what I described in that post and add... "someone who adheres to the evidence-based practices of their profession and the scientific method."

According to her bio on her site, this expert references having witnessed the "corrupted attempts at the development of new vaccine strategies." No specifics, but this experience evidently drove her to determine that vaccines are bad and that we must find ways to deal with "acute illness in the absence of vaccination." Don't know about you, but I'd rather stick with prevention than time travel back to the Stone Age.

Recently, I published a list of what to watch out for when trying to distinguish science and pseudoscience. The short form of that list is below. Let's apply it. 



  1. The source here is clearly someone with specific training in this field. Apparently, Harvard narrowly missed having her as a postdoc, as she seems instead to have ended up at Stanford. 
  2. The agenda here may include the class that Obukhanych is offering, which she describes as including information about vaccine exemptions in California from daycare and regular schools. The class is $20 per person, limited to four people per class. She also offers herself up for "public lectures on vaccinations" and is giving one this coming February that's $30 bucks a head or couple. You know, we really need to pay postdocs more.
  3. The language is careful. It's caring. It talks about "empowerment" and ensuring that parents are "truly informed." This is marketing language to avoid the appearance of being reactionary and instead to give the appearance of being eminently sensible, welcoming, and calm. It's also the same kind of language antivax organizations like the National Vaccine Information Center uses. Insidious and ingratiating, it's concern troll language at its smoothest. I'm starting to wonder if there's some sort of antivax marketing guide these folks all use.
  4. Does it involve testimonials? No. This appears to be a new enterprise.
  5. Are there claims of exclusivity? Only the implication that because of her expertise, she knows things you don't...and apparently no one else in immunology does, either.
  6. Yes. "Corrupted attempts at the development of new vaccine strategies" and "proclaimed virtues of vaccines."
  7. It refers simply to "vaccine injuries." 
  8. Yes. Classes at $20 per person, lecture at $30 a head, although take from the door is not stated.  
  9. None are given. The reading list she provides includes tomes that emphasize homeopathy, a widely debunked form of pseudoscience.
  10. Is there expertise? Yes. 

And that last is what makes this so demoralizing and so dangerous. Not only is there expertise but also there is the cachet of a high-profile research institution with which she is associated, at least temporarily, and which she is careful to highlight. This combination of training and a high-profile institution results in the dangerous embodiment of someone who can--and apparently will--argue against lifesaving public health measures for a mere 20 bucks a head. As I noted in my post about distinguishing real and fake science, "even MDs and PhDs can be disposed to acquisitiveness. Never forget to look for the money. Always, always follow the money."

Her association with Stanford led to a discussion on Twitter that began with a tweet asking what Stanford might do about it. As another tweeter noted, Stanford shouldn't do much of anything about it unless she's somehow violated a contractual agreement. It is a feature of antivax proponents to contact people's employers and demand their ouster, sometimes to the point of harassment. That's not right, and it's not something that should be done here. But the association of Stanford with their postdoc's anti-science, antivax efforts likely will not reflect well on the university.

As noted above, Obukhanych is giving a seminar in February at a place called The Red Tent, where women can gather and, it says, support each other through all of life's transitions. I hope that such support includes transitions involving life-threatening disease because based on what Obukhanych is promising to teach attendees of her seminar, it's a potential outcome, one that's playing out everywhere vaccine uptake rates decline.

She expects to discuss what she calls "three pillars that support the illusion of vaccine effectiveness and safety." Evidently, she plans to pull out dead-horse tropes about how vaccines didn't really eradicate diseases like smallpox, that there's a "lack" of evidence-based research to back up claims of vaccine effectiveness and safety, and that the "immunologic theory" underlying vaccination is profoundly flawed. Finally, the summary of her planned lecture says, she is the mother of a "healthy, unvaccinated toddler," and she herself "experienced most of the benign infectious diseases of her childhood" in Ukraine. That last thing drives me nuts. I admit it. "I survived" is not somehow evidence that everyone else will, too. I've survived three full-term pregnancies. That doesn't mean all women do. Also, I'm wondering if among those "benign" childhood diseases, she experienced polio, meningitis, or diphtheria.

In other words, there is not one thing here that's new, that hasn't been debunked and thoroughly buried under evidence and data. Nothing here in content that distinguishes the originator from any number of antivax Websites and woo peddlers. She even gives the laundry list of woo-based caveats on her site, from the "aluminum in vaccines will rot your brain" oldie but goodie (it will not) to "you can eat your way to avoiding infectious disease!" (if only).  But...despite this faithful reflection of what the antivax choir has adhered to for years, something here's just a little...odd.

It's odd that someone with extensive training in immunology is unaware of the literature about vaccine safety and effectiveness. It's odd that given the remarkable public health success story that vaccines are--not only in the United States but anywhere they're available--someone with expertise would argue that the theory underlying them and on which they've been developed and tested is profoundly flawed. Eradicating disease is a strange way for such a flaw to manifest. It's odd that despite how well tracked the decline in diseases like smallpox was, someone would argue that it wasn't linked to the vaccine that stopped its transmission.

What is most odd here is that this scientist, with all of her training, has not provided us on her Website with evidence-based information to support what she's claiming. All we have is an assertion of "corrupted attempts to develop new vaccine strategies," a misty phrase that doesn't seem to have much to do with whether or not vaccines work but does hint at a juicy conspiracy. That's a cardinal sign of a pseudoscience. Where's the real science to support her assertions?

Coming from someone like this, someone with the cachet of degree and expertise, what normally would be a yawner of antivax wishlisting becomes, in this context, an insidious, insinuating, and potentially fatal danger to public health. How many of those women will emerge from that Red Tent or the Menlo Park "classes" inflamed with misinformation and proselytize it to others? How many will go forth into the world and elect not to vaccinate their children against vaccine-preventable illness? How many children will suffer--not only the unvaccinated by parent choice but those who cannot be vaccinated because of age or immune conditions and who contract their diseases--because parents refuse to fulfill their social responsibility? Is this potential for death and suffering really worth 20 bucks a head?

Why did The Atlantic publish this piece trying to link miRNAs and GMOs?

Rice.
[Note: Updates on this piece are at the bottom. Writer Ari Levaux explains (1) that he was not responsible for headline or dek, which I'd suspected, and (2) that he's going to rewrite the piece, updating the scientific portions of it.]


A study from a Chinese group led by Chen-Yu Zhang of Nanking University and published in Cell Research, has uncovered the fascinating result that when people eat rice, they can absorb microRNAs (miRNAs)--tiny sequences of RNA--from the rice into the blood. These rice-originating miRNAs turn up in blood and tissues of people who eat rice and...here's the kicker...one type of rice miRNA interacts with human proteins that are responsible for removing LDL ("bad" cholesterol) from the blood (!). It's the first report of plant miRNAs ending up in people by way of diet and the finding that at least one of them alters an important process in the body.

The implications could extend in many a direction, but not as far as writer Ari Levaux would like to take them in this remarkably confusing article published on the Atlantic Website. Before taking on the errors and the overstretch that are that piece, let's look at something far more interesting: miRNAs themselves.

These little bits of RNA, consisting of 22 building blocks linked in a single strand (a human DNA molecule has billions) get around with surprising facility, and their purpose is to regulate genes. They don't regulate by latching directly onto a DNA sequence but instead lurk in the cell and interfere with processes that come after the gene's role is complete. If you consider the gene sequence as the directions for building a protein, one job of RNA is to serve as a copy of those directions. It takes on the risky business of toting that copy out of the safety of the nuclear vault in our cells and into the big, bad scary cytoplasm outside. In the cytoplasm, the fluid-ish environment of the cell, RNA has many, many roles, but all of them center on executing the directions encoded in the gene for building proteins, the molecules that help make up our tissues and perform the tasks required to keep us alive.

In some cases, though, RNA occurs in the form of miRNAs, and their job may well be to bollix up the protein-building works. These little molecules--which researchers have identified in the hundreds in humans--can, for example, latch onto an RNA that is a copy of the protein code and cause it to break down or keep the cell from using it. These tiny RNA sequences help fine-tune the process of protein building well beyond the starting point of directions copied from a gene sequence. Thanks to miRNAs and many other steps that can promote or interfere with protein building, the cell--and the organism--has several chances to modulate how much of a specific protein it makes, allowing agile, real-time responses to changing conditions. 

Researchers have discovered myriad ways that miRNA influences human development and disease, and these discoveries open the way to using that information to cure disease. But all of the miRNAs investigated thus far in people have come from people themselves, either present for normal functions or overabundant and linked to disease. The flashy take-home from this latest rice study is, We can pick up these tiny regulators from what we eat...and they can interfere with the functions of proteins we make


This take-home could have huge implications for how diet influences our health and development if other non-human miRNAs turn up that fit the same profile: absorbable after we eat them and modifying how our bodies function. The effects could be good, bad, ugly, or neutral. This paper is simply an open door. Now, for years and years, investigators will walk through it to find a number of research paths to explore, from seeking more non-human miRNAs and identifying their effects to evaluating how modifying diet might influence disease or human development via miRNAs. 

In spite of how much lies ahead and how relatively little lies in the present about this discovery--one rice miRNA, one human effect--the piece that appeared today in the Atlantic argues that the implications are immediate and dire and related to genetically modified organisms. I initially read the piece trying to identify how someone could make that leap but instead found myself distracted by how poorly the article presents the science itself.

First, the headline: The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods. I read the Cell Research paper. I can't find mention of GMOs in it. I don't find mention in the paper the the rice miRNA in question derives from a genetically modified rice strain. So, I don't see that this headline appropriately represents the science here.

Then there's the dek: "New research shows that when we eat we're consuming more than just vitamins and proteins. Our bodies are absorbing information, or DNA." That's not what this research shows. It shows that the body takes up a specific rice miRNA when people consume it. Not DNA or "information."

The lede leaves out a crucial modifier: the word "rice": "Chinese researchers have found small pieces of ribonucleic acid (RNA) in the blood and organs of humans who eat rice." Actually, miRNAs are present in the blood and organs of...all humans, whether they eat rice or not. I think the writer here means "small pieces of rice ribonucleic acid." 

There is then a series of claims about what the research implies, including, mysteriously, that it will help us learn how some "herbal medicines function." The original paper makes no mention of herbal medicines, although some research indicates that "natural agents" can alter expression of human miRNA. Also among the potential implications described in the piece is, "And it reveals a pathway by which genetically modified (GM) foods might influence human health." That's an enormous leap to make from "one rice miRNA in blood and tissues influences activity of one human protein." A number of steps would be required for a GM food to exert a similar effect, none of which have been investigated yet. These steps include identifying that the modified sequence in the target food either also encodes a miRNA sequence or interacts with its expression or, later in the gene-to-protein process, somehow evades normal miRNA regulation thanks to this change. 

Then suddenly, there's Monsanto and a strange effort to explain the central dogma of molecular biology (DNA-->RNA-->protein) using a pizza/pizza restaurant analogy that involves the "DNA" knowing what kind of pizza "it wants," although in truth, the cell is the entity in charge of which parts of the DNA it uses. The central dogma, a linear representation of how a cell copies DNA into RNA and then uses the RNA copy instructions to build proteins, is too simple for what we know today about how cells regulate protein expression. But the core dogma remains intact, including that DNA serves as the template for making RNA.

The article makes a number of other scientific errors, including in a bold pull quote claiming, "The Chinese RNA study threatens to blast a major hole in Monsanto's claim. It means that DNA can code for microRNA (italics mine), which can, in fact, be hazardous." No. That's not what the Chinese study "means." It's not news that DNA encodes RNA of all kinds. It encodes the messenger form that carries the copy of the code. It encodes the ribosomal form that is a component of ribosomes, the cell factory workers that take the code copy and use it as an instruction book for building proteins. It encodes the RNAs that bring those factory workers the molecular blocks the cell uses for building proteins. And it encodes miRNAs. This latest paper does not carry the meaning that DNA encodes miRNAs--that's a longstanding part of the Central Dogma, ironically, and not news. Nor does it threaten in any discernible way to "blast a hole" in much of anything. As I noted, the study opens a door. 

In closing, Levaux writes,
The news that we're ingesting information as well as physical material should force the biotech industry to confront the possibility that new DNA can have dangerous implications far beyond the products it codes for. Can we count on the biotech industry to accept the notion that more testing is necessary? Not if such action is perceived as a threat to the bottom line.
"Ingesting information"? The miRNAs are not "information" (they are noncoding molecules), and like all other things of this world that we've identified, they're not somehow distinctive from "physical material." There is naught in this study that implies that "new DNA" can have "dangerous implications" far beyond the products it "codes for." The miRNAs in this paper are not "new." They are from rice, the most-prevalent grain crop in Asia, and presumably something humans have been taking in for hundreds of years. It's unclear from this study even what the implications of the findings are for consumers of regular rice, much less what they'd be for modified organisms. Furthermore, we are not the only entities that modify organisms. Nature does so, often by way of viruses. I wonder why the fact that miRNAs are also present in viruses and could "potentially regulate host genes" didn't set off the anti-GMO alarms, too. 

The article goes on for several grafs about Monsanto and substantial equivalence--indeed, the writer devotes a mere 180 words or so of 908 to the study itself--and observes that the lead author on the Cell Research paper (wisely) declined to comment on any implications about these findings for GM foods. If only the Atlantic and Ari Levaux had done the same, the real implications of this remarkable work could simply stand on their own. 
--------------------------------------------------------------------
For an article that focuses more on the research findings from the study, including design and other dietary miRNAs identified, see this piece by Anne-Marie C. Hodge at Scientific American.


ETA: As for the study itself, the effects the authors found weren't earthshattering, and it seems that there was an issue with images provided that required a rapid erratum after the paper was published. 


Follow-up: The author of the piece, Ari Levaux, has responded here, and I have replied just below that. 


Follow-up follow-up: Ari Levaux has tweeted that he is going to rewrite the piece, taking the scientific critiques into account. I'm looking forward to seeing the update. 

The trouble with social algorithms

Via Wikimedia Commons, in US public domain.
Say that you're like me, someone who's spent most of their lives observing others for any number of reasons, among them to pick up tips about social rules. To see how "regular" people interact with each other and then work those observations into what I've always thought of as my social algorithms. Even into my forties, I add to these complex social equations so that I can do almost mathematically what seems to come so naturally to others. 

Sometimes, my algorithms go off the rails. Often, I don't seem to make quite the right face or gesture, or I drop the algorithm a bit too soon and start into my other social defense: the personal interview. Once it seems to me that the other person or people and I have sufficiently covered the small talk, I slip into that defensive mode of asking people their life histories--school, childhood origins, experiences, work, interests. People seem to like that, and it works well for me because (a) I am truly interested, always, in the stories of others, and (b) I get to be the listener while they seem to enjoy themselves. I'm not insincere. Just...unsure, and this helps. I can't imagine what I'd feel like if someone took my inner workings and, without my knowledge, made them public for all the world to deride, although I'm obviously comfortable doing that for myself.

If you don't really know what I mean by social algorithms, take a break for a mo' and enjoy this video of Sheldon from the television show "The Big Bang Theory" as he applies just such an algorithm but finds himself stuck in an iterative loop. It's funny, but it also happens to me frequently. 



These algorithms, as my own experience and the experience of the person who developed this scene clearly illustrate, don't always quite work out, and sometimes, they don't include all the necessary variables. Some of us can experience a derailment and brush it off or try to pick up features to add, while others, like Sheldon, simply get...stuck, unable to decipher how the "If X then Y" that they've devised got so jammed up. 

That's what I think happened to Mike, a self-described investment banker who met a woman named Lauren at the NY Philharmonic for a date. While I like life stories, this one's no pleasure to read. Somehow, the story of Mike and Lauren has made it into the public sphere, thanks to the release of an email that Mike sent to Lauren. It's unclear whether Lauren herself released this email or someone else did, but unless Mike made it public, Lauren obviously is the person who aided in catapulting it into the public eye. The email first made its appearance on Reddit and then migrated over to the Huffington Post, where it sits, evergreen, for anyone to read and--as the comments do--mock the man who wrote it. As of this writing, the HuffPo post alone had almost 8000 Facebook shares, about 900 tweets, and about 1700 email shares. The original Reddit post now has 2000 comments.

Some people have interpreted what Mike wrote to Lauren as arrogant or creepy or stalkerish. To Lauren, it was likely all three. Mike claims to have written the email after several attempts to contact Lauren, to none of which she responded. 

Thus, what we have here then is one date, some ignored voicemails and texts, this email, and its release into the public sphere.

While many, many people read the email and thought that Mike was just an asshole, I saw something different. I saw a man whose social algorithms clearly told him that two plus two equals four, while the woman he'd been with saw them as adding up to exactly zero. Throughout the email, Mike lays out with a Spock-like clarity the various factors related to him that should make him desirable: He's got a good job, they both like the NY Philharmonic, they both seem bright, and so on. He also lays out the various social cues he thinks he detected in her, from twirling her hair to saying, "It was nice to meet you" at the end of the date. From his perspective, these cues were heavy with social meaning, and in the robotic calculus that he presents--"On a per-minute basis, I've never had as much eye contact on a date as I did with you"--leads him in frustration to the conclusion, Does not compute. Why are you ignoring me when the solution to this equation is so obvious?

That frustration and his social math are evident throughout his email. He parses--correctly--her "It was nice to meet you statement" as "inconclusive." He offers that according to his calculations, their first date was "nice enough" to warrant a second one. He literally enumerates what he perceives to be their commonalities, as though a human relationship were the mathematical sum of intelligence, a common interest, and being a good match "in terms of age." He's also clearly obsessed with classical music, so much so that he lays it out as his "number one" interest a woman should have if he is to date her. He further points out, using a fierce calculus, how convenient it would be for two such busy people to date as they're already both frequent attendees at the Philharmonic and thus dating wouldn't require any more of their time than they already expend.

Then, he makes some revelations, whether purposely or not, that tell Lauren (and now us) even more. He's an investment banker, but he performs this service for...his parents, and he's quite defensive about that. He notes that while he's gone out with a lot of women, "some" of those dates have been one-time events. Based on these tidbits of information, Mike seems to be a man smart enough to invest successfully for his parents but somehow limited in some way so that they are his only clients, obsessed with classical music, reliant on social algorithms that he can't adjust when they derail, and lacking in a history of lengthy relationships.

In other words, he's someone who seems to have average to above average intelligence but also social deficits that may impair his success in that sphere and an obsessive interest, in this case, in classical music.

In other words, Mike reminds me of a person on the autism spectrum. I can't diagnose Mike, obviously. But his unforgiving calculations, his fixation on how his social algorithms as he understood them didn't work for him, his inability to understand that after an email like this, a woman would not be interested in, as he suggests, "talking on the phone," much less emailing him back--all of these point to a clear kind of social functioning that relies considerably on intellectualized rather than naturally emerging social understanding. It's something I recognized immediately. In spite of my social math, I am sincere in my feelings, and I felt horrible for Mike that this misconceived epistle had become target practice for the world. I know others who'd make this same mistake, these same mistaken assumptions, perhaps even write an email similar to this one, trying to work out their mystification, make the other person just...see. And it seizes me internally to think of this sort of mockery leveled at them.

Am I excusing Mike? Not really. Of course, he would have been better off not typing a 1600-word email to a woman who had ignored his calls and texts. But...Lauren doesn't get off with a clean social graces scorecard here, either. I suspect that had she responded with a clear negative to one of his early texts or calls, that would have signaled "end" to the algorithm. Indeed, the algorithms I know dictate that one should respond to one follow-up contact after a date, especially when one has offered a parting, "It was nice to meet you" as opposed to a clear, "I never want to see you again." And I know with a certainty that taking his email and making it available to others, which she seems to have done, is a social and human transgression of considerable magnitude, one that could cause devastating pain. And I don't need an algorithm to tell me that's wrong.

Why growing up as an American female has left me appreciating men

I happen to disagree.
Yesterday, I posted a litany of experiences that had become so commonplace that it occurred to me only recently how much they'd shaped my attitude of wariness about men. They're not horrifically dire, but they were all invasive and damaging, and based on the response, they are not unusual experiences for women. Today, in an act of counterbalance, I've got a different litany, one that illustrates how good some men I've known--and not known--have been. These experiences and their abundance reinforce the overwhelmingly positive attitude I have about men in spite of a persistent and likely necessary wariness. Yes, it's complicated.

I wonder what the following men have in common that classifies them away from intrusive, obnoxious, assaultive jerks. Is it an imperviousness to cultural pressures? To rom-coms? A native understanding that people are people who deserve respect and equal treatment? A native kindness? I don't know. But they are a large group, far outweighing the number of assholes I've encountered in my life. These men are nice guys, and in my opinion, they are not last-place finishers. As an American female, I am grateful to these boys and men who've behaved in ways that negate some of the boorishness out there. In the end, there are kind people and there are mean people, male, female, hetero, GLBTQ, asexual, tall, short, rich, poor. Here are some examples of good men:

  • My brother, stepping in when I very much needed him on many an occasion, always supportive.
  • My brother-in-law, a kind and ethical man who takes children fishing even when he's bone tired, who stepped in last summer when my my oldest and autistic son needed a defense and I wasn't around, and who has helped us move thousands of miles in the years we've known him.
  • The men who let me live in their dorm room and on their dorm floor in a men's dorm my sophomore year in college when I had nowhere else to live. This motley crew of future musicians, engineers, artists, and doctors not only kept my presence on the QT but also brought me food from the dorm cafeteria as I had no money to eat. 
  • My many platonic male roommates with whom I've had some of the best times of my life, watching football and baseball, seeing bands, playing football, staying up until dawn on the porch, and generally making the most out of our college salad days.
  • The two young men who gave me a ride home one night from a club when I was in college, barely 18 years old. I did not know them. They did not know me. Yes, it was stupid, but they turned out to be kind and didn't lay a hand on me. They just took me home.
  • My high-school chemistry, German, and physics teacher--all the same fellow--who saw some kind of something in me worth nurturing and showed that he had high expectations of me.
  • My postdoctoral advisor, who couldn't have been smarter, more accommodating, more insightful about my talents and lack of talent in specific things, and who nurtured the former.
  • One of my current and my longest-term clients, invariably kind, understanding, smart, and generous.
  • Any man who has ever quietly opened a door for me as I wrangled one or two small children, groceries, and strollers. 
  • Any man who drove by me without commentary as I walked alone, who danced elsewhere as I danced alone, who left me alone in coffee shops as I sat alone, who didn't bother me on the bus or train as I rode alone.
  • Any man in the trifecta of social media in which I participate who has interacted with me for my thoughts, ideas, and opinions without bringing sexual politics or sexism into play.
  • My three sons, kind, smart, funny people who are works in progress and with whom I gladly spend most of my waking hours because I like them so much.
  • The Viking (a.k.a., my spouse), who exemplifies something archaic in a sense, the true meaning of "gentleman," someone who has never lied to me, who supports me unequivocally in what I do, whose gentleness and kindness leave everyone liking and respecting him, whose competence and intelligence command my own respect, who has my implicit trust, who never uses hyperbole or takes advantage of anyone, who is strong and doesn't use that as a power against others. This very private person is my rock, my partner, my mental twin, my closest friend and companion. And he is a man. A mighty good man.

Why growing up as an American female has left me wary of men

The author as a young American girl.


(Trigger warnings: assault, indecent exposure)

Have you grown up female in the United States*? I did. I think about my experiences and how much they might have informed my current views, my sense of who I am, my wariness about men combined in complex ways with how very much I like men. I think that many men who are perfectly good people who respect women feel targeted, named, included by association when women complain about how men treat them, accost them in elevators or on sidewalks, behave too persistently in bars, and otherwise make nuisances or worse out of themselves. When I complain about these things and heartily agree that yes, all I want to do is take a walk, I don't mean to encompass all men in these condemnations. Yet, I'd imagine that unless you grew up female, you may not have a complete understanding of why women--some women, at any rate--react this way to such behaviors.

The men currently in my life, the ones I include there volitionally and mutually, are all thoughtful people who'd never follow a woman on the street, catcall at her, or otherwise stress her out simply because she exists and is out in public. It's not these men who are the ones of whom I'm wary. It's the men I do not know. And there are reasons for that.

Here's what it was like for me to grow up as a female in the United States. I haven't taken an official poll, but among the women I know, these experiences are not unique. And I think cultural influences, from an emphasis on machismo to the ludicrousness of romantic comedies, has left some men thinking that they've got an upper hand or a way to manipulate women using these tactics that will, presumably, land them some sexy time. Of course, in some of these cases, darker impulses were at work.

In elementary school, in spite of my being generally ostracized by my own sex, I found a few boys professing an interest in me. One of them unceasingly pestered me with notes and calls to my home and weird allusions to breasts while we stood in the lunch line. To this day, I remember him and how frustrating it was that I couldn't get across how much I wanted him to Stop. Doing. That.

When I was about 10, an old man in a swimming pool approached me and offered to "tickle my fancy." He then turned to the other old man with him, and they leered and chuckled to each other. The very recollection of that episode still makes me want to vomit.

When I was 12, a man working around my grandmother's pool exposed himself to me behind my grandmother's back as she watched us (my brother and me) swim. My grandmother, who has multiple sclerosis, was in a wheelchair and essentially paraplegic. He continued this behavior, which included masturbation, and I was flummoxed about what to do, afraid to just leave to find some other adult in the nearby house while my younger brother and grandmother remained vulnerable. But it wasn't until my father arrived to collect us and the man got onto the roof of the poolhouse and continued to expose himself behind my father's head that I became internally frantic, willing my father to just TURN AROUND. He didn't. My first words when I got home were to my mother: "I've been indecently exposed to." The man was arrested, two of his friends came to our home to threaten us, and he was finally sent to prison for a certain number of years. My own feelings about that episode consisted of bewilderment and a certain amount of confusion centered on, "Was it something I did?" Intellectually, I know that the answer is, "No. It's something he did." But it lingers, and reading apologetics like this one doesn't help.

In high school, I went on a first date with a boy I'd known for three years and trusted. He was a very, very nice boy. But he also was, I think, longing longing longing for some kind of intimate interaction with a girl. We were at his house, his parents present in the home, and we went to his room, not for any hanky panky that I knew of, but just so I could see it and then we'd head out for dinner. Instead, I found myself subjected to an assault of persistent busy hands and mouth, one that he did not stop when I told him to. Eventually, I applied actual physical and loud vocal resistance, and that ended the episode. To this day, I'm still surprised that this mild-mannered, very nice boy became so overwhelmed by his urges that he couldn't stop himself when he knew he should have.

In college, I was on a trip to another city with friends when a friend of these friends began to attack me physically and sexually in the front seat of the car we were in; I was the passenger, he was the driver. A "friend" was sitting in the back seat, and as I became increasingly angry, frustrated, and vocal about this man's physical probings all over my person, the "friend" in the back seat, seemingly utterly clueless, just laughed. We arrived at a restaurant where I immediately shook them both off and reported the incident to...my husband at the time, who was traveling with the group but was in another car. He and some other members of the group confronted the attacker, and his excuse was that once I'd put on mascara, the transformation was so complete and inflaming that he just couldn't help himself. I can't say if it's associated, but I rarely wear makeup any more.

Also in college, I was sitting in a bar at our student union talking with a friend when a total stranger rushed up to me, handed me a rose, and started gushing about how strikingly beautiful or lovely or something I was. Just for the record, this behavior is not romantic. It's creepy. Don't do it.

Throughout my time as an American female, I've had my ass and other parts pinched by total strangers in public places, I've been pelvic danced from behind by strange men when I was dancing purposely alone in bars. I've been catcalled, followed for blocks, harassed in bars. One assault in a bar went so far that I lost buttons on my shirt as three men tugged and pulled at me and I clearly resisted--and the people around just...watched. I filed charges in that case. One of my relatives, a feminist, nevertheless accused me of being at fault for being in the bar in the first place. I contended--and still do--that I should be able to be where I want to be without fear of being attacked or accused of asking for it somehow because of my mere presence in public.

These experiences were the physical ones, the ones that I can remember in an episodic sense. They don't include the innumerable instances of overt and subtle sexism, starting with "Hey! You don't throw like a girl!" and running all the way to, "Miss Emily, we feel that you'd bring a needed injection of estrogen to the biology department." There are big events that linger always and smaller ones that just accumulate, like the many many cars that have slowed down to keep pace with my walking down the street, while a strange man croons at me or whistles or calls out. In the aggregate, though, they lead to four-plus decades of experience as an American female.

You may think that after these experiences, I might not like men much. But throughout college, most of my roommates were male. I've always had men as my closest friends. I've married two of them (sequentially) and now parent three future men of our own. But when I find myself alone in close situations with a strange man--elevators, for example--I put on a thousand-yard stare and offer up zero interaction. I apply this method on the street, in restaurants, in hallways, anywhere that might entail an unwanted close encounter. If a man were to go so far as to make physical contact with me uninvited? I've got a bit of a hair trigger about that these days.

Does that mean that I think that all men are horny bastards loaded up on bullshit behaviors from romantic comedies and bent on interfering with my thoughts, personal enjoyment, alone time, or worse? No. In defense of men, whose company I enjoy mightily when it's of mutual choosing, I'll say that the vast majority of men I've encountered in my life have not targeted these behaviors at me. But a sufficient number have done so to leave enough shadow of PTSD to warrant some wariness--and a strong response when I witness personal violations of women, in real life or virtually.

*I'm using American here, as that's my cultural experience.

On autism, sAPPa, immunity, and subsets

via Wikimedia Commons
A new paper is making the rounds, purporting to link autism, a protein called sAPPa, and immune function. The paper, published in the journal FASEB**, isn't about autism, however. It's about a potential link between elevations in a protein called sAPPa and its effects on immune factors. Lead author A.R. Bailey and the other authors produced mice that make a whole lot of sAPPa in specific organs and found that these mice showed compromised production of specific immune cells and molecules compared to animals not overexpressing the protein. Period. They did no work specific to autistic behaviors and did not assess the mice overexpressing sAPPa for such behaviors.

Scientists use the Introduction of a scientific paper to lay down their rationale for the work they're doing. In the Introduction to this paper, the researchers in this work first sought to link autism and immune function. To do so, they cite two papers. One is a 2010 review of existing literature that refers to autism as a "devastating disease," apocalyptic terminology that does little good for autistic people or their families.

That 2010 review (full text here) covers a great deal of ground, with abundant citations of studies linking autism with altered levels of various molecules associated with inflammation responses. What remains unclear is whether these changes are causative in autism or the result of the stress and anxiety that often accompany autism. The review authors describe new "exciting" research findings showing that immune molecules called antibodies from mothers of children with autism appear to target the fetal brain, but these findings apply to a "subset of mothers of children with autism." You'll see that word subset more and more as researchers parse the likely multiple variants of the developmental difference we generally call "autism." 

The other paper the FASEB authors cite to support the immune link to autism is from 2004. That's the groundwork they lay for an immune connection. 

In the next paragraph, the Bailey team offers their rationale for focusing on sAPPa. The background consists primarily of this study. It is quite similar to this study, published in PLoS ONE, with both papers reporting that in a subset--there's that word again--of patients with severe autism and aggression, sAPPa levels are increased. The sAPPa protein is related to APP, a molecule that has been central to research into the causes of Alzheimer's and associated with other brain derailments. In this second paragraph, the FASEB authors also link sAPPa to immunity, noting that immune cells pump it out when they're stimulated, although the studies they cite focus on Alzheimer's, which the authors seem to suggest is, molecularly speaking, the opposite of autism. At the end of this second paragraph, they say that sAPPa is being considered as an autism biomarker, a molecule that would identify a person as having or not having autism. 

The issue with that concept is that one of the two studies (full text here) cited to support it focused on a subset--there's that word again--of autistic people. The subset consists of children with severe autism and aggression, as in the PLoS ONE and Sokol studies. The other cited study compared sAPPa levels in 25 autistic children and 25 non-autistic children and found relatively elevated levels in the autistic group. The authors of that last study also identified sAPPa in umbilical cord blood, but as they established no link between that and autism in the owners of said umbilical cords, the relevance remains unclear.

The authors of the PLoS ONE study, which involved children whose average ages were 6 to 8 years,  note that their sAPPa findings "do not extend to children with mild or moderate autism."

Finally, the FASEB authors work to thread it all together, suggesting that because immune changes are linked to autism, sAPPa is linked to autism, and sAPPa is linked to immune effects, then a sAPPa influence on immunity might be a cause of autism. To test that idea, they created a mouse that made a lot more sAPPa than normal in the brain, thymus, and spleen and found that more sAPPa in these tissues resulted in notable changes in various immune measures. 

This work addresses a potential link among these factors. But then the FASEB authors reach and overstate. The final statement of an Introduction sometimes summarizes the authors' take-home message, and that applies in this case. They write:

We conclude that sAPP- is instrumental in modifying T-cell development and function, and therefore may be directly involved in the pathophysiology of autism.
Except for a couple of problems. Nowhere in this work do they establish that elevated sAPPa in these mice results in behaviors that characterize autism, which is diagnosed on behavioral characteristics. All of the work in the paper focused on looking at the immune outcomes. Nor has there been a previously established unequivocal connection between autism and T-cell development and function. Finally, sAPPa has been linked to severe autism with aggression, not to autism in general, which encompasses a minutely variegated spectrum of manifestations.

The Discussion of a scientific paper is a place for authors to note the shortcomings of their work. The Discussion of this paper includes no such assessment. It does, however, include some more overstatement of the findings.

Our findings of impairment in the T-cell memory function as a result of high levels of sAPP- may explain why children with autism are more susceptible to infection (57, 58).
The two references they provide don't support the assertion that autistic children are "more susceptible to infection." The first study, from 2006, based on the abstract, actually found that while autistic children had more ear infections, non-autistic children had more "illness-related fevers." The other paper they cite, a Danish cohort study from 2010 (full text here), noted that the associations they identified did "not suggest causality" and that the association was not "specific for infection or for autism spectrum disorders." In their paper, the cohort study authors note again the increased incidence of ear infections, and offer three non-immune-related possible explanations for why autistic children might present more often at the hospital.

Finally, the authors of the sAPPa paper close with the following overstatement:

These findings are important because they substantiate the strengthening hypothesis that sAPP- is involved in the initiation of the T-cell response, and they provide a theory for the possible association between two phenomena observed in patients with autism: elevated levels of sAPP- and aberrant T-cell immunity. Future studies investigating this potential connection are imperative and will lead to the necessary development of individualized treatments for the unique subset of patients with autism for whom these studies are relevant.
The authors do not define the unique subset in question, but as the papers they cite illustrate, the "unique subset" is children with severe autism and aggression. They're the population with elevated sAPPa levels in the small studies done to date. As for abberrant T-cell immunity, as I noted above, that's not an unequivocal association with autism. I think the authors missed a very large, important boat in these conclusions, but I'll keep what that is in my pocket until the end of this post.

And then...

There is this news release associated with the FASEB paper. If you agree with me that the paper authors reached quite a bit in stating their conclusions, get a load of what the news release says.

First, there's the headline: "Autism may be linked to abnormal immune system characteristics and novel protein fragment." Except that nowhere in this paper do the authors make this link.

Then there's the dek. "University of South Florida researchers made the discoveries using mouse models of autism." Nope. They used a mouse model of overexpression of sAAPa. Using a mouse model of autism would not have helped them address the research question they posed unless they reversed the parameters.

Nowhere does this news release mention a "subset" of autism. In fact, the opening salvo refers to "immune system abnormalities that mimic those seen with autism spectrum disorders." Plural. The implication is that there are clearly defined immune abnormalities in autism that can be mimicked. But that's not the case. There are hints. Signs. Signposts. Outcomes that in some cases neatly dovetail with the FASEB paper's findings...and some that do not.

The release states that "the USF researchers concluded that the protein fragment might be both a biomarker for autism..." Not at all. They didn't conclude that in the paper, noting only that sAPPa was already under consideration as a biomarker for autism. Specifically severe autism with aggression. 

Then things get rather personal. The chair of the department where the team did the work is quoted as saying, "The prognosis for autism is poor." What does that mean? Do people die from it? Will the autistic children whom I know today never mature, develop, move forward? That statement alone propagates an image of autism akin to malignant melanoma, and as with "devastating disease" does no good for autistic people. The chair is also quoted as saying that this work "may lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatments." That's beyond speculative, and at best, it would be diagnosis of the subgroup that shows elevated levels of sAPPa. That's important, but I'm still keeping that one in my pocket for last.

The release goes on to say that the research team inserted the gene for sAPPa into the genome of the mice. Not really. The gene was turned on only in spleen, brain, and thymus. This work does not indicate what the outcome would be were the gene expressed organismally. 

In what ultimately is the best description of this work, the release quotes one of the study authors as saying that they used molecular biology and immunochemistry techniques to characterize immune cell development in the thymus and spleen function in the genetically altered mice and compared them to normal mice. That is exactly what the authors of this paper did. There is no characterization of autism in this work. 

That doesn't stop the news release from closing with a quote from study author Jun Tan, saying, "Our work suggests that the negative effects of elevated sAPPa on the adaptive immune system is a novel mechanism underlying certain forms of autism." Another overstatement that's sure to set the interwebz aflame with fingerpointing at vaccines as triggers for autism. But then he offers the real conclusion: "The findings also add support to the role of sAPPa in the T-cell response." This conclusion finds support in the paper results. Anything having to do with autism does not.

What would I have liked to have seen from this paper and the accompanying news release? More precision and accuracy. A clear emphasis on the real findings of the paper, the effect of sAPPa on immune endpoints. If autism had to be mentioned, the fact that sAPPa is related only to a "unique subset" of autistic people should have been made quite clear in both the paper and the news release. Finally, the news release should not--in the headline, quotes, or other text--have used the word "linked" in association with autism, as no aspect of autism itself was investigated in this work. Doing so simply leads to flame headlines, inflaming controversies, misapplication of science, and further muddling of people's perception of autism.  

The work itself is cool stuff. Had the authors and the news release noted the closer relevance to the "unique subset" of autism, the marketing of the work would have been more accurate. Frankly, the findings would have been of greater interest had they specified the subset, given the growing recognition that there are likely many "autisms," rather than a monolith that some--including in these publications--have been calling it. Any work teasing out these different strands of the autism monolith is forward looking and worth emphasizing.

Without ever really acknowledging or emphasizing it, the authors here may have added to a growing body of work that could lead to stratification--identification of subsets--of autism into what are clearly different forms. How immensely helpful that would be in terms of people with severe autism and aggression. What a useful contribution to testing and treatment for severe autism and aggression. Yet somehow, that important aspect, that target audience, went overlooked in favor of big, splashy references to what remains an eyeball magnet: Autism. Just...autism.


**
Aberrant T-lymphocyte development and function in mice overexpressing human secreted amyloid precursor protein-α: implications for autism; A. Bailey, H. Hou, D. Obregon, J. Tian, Y. Zhu, Q. Zou, W. Nikolic, M. Bengston, T. Mori, T. Murphy, J. Tan; The FASEB Journal; published online Nov. 15, 2011