Taking aim at autism from many angles

Finding a diagnostic tool and an effective treatment for autism are the end goals for Dorota Crawford, whether she is studying genetic markers for autism or examining how the environment in which a baby develops in utero may affect development of brain cells, reported Hospital News in its October 2010 issue.

Crawford, a professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science in the Faculty of Health at York University, aims to change this. She is using her unique dual expertise in genetics and neuroscience research to study how genes that have been associated with autism affect brain cell development, and how environmental factors – for example, drugs or infections – may cause molecular changes that interfere with communication between neuronal cells in the developing brain. Crawford is confident that breakthroughs in earlier diagnosis and treatment of the disorder will come from a multidisciplinary approach.

Crawford’s lab at York University’s Keele campus is one of very few autism labs in the world that integrates genetics with molecular and cellular neuroscience approaches to study the link between biological and environmental causes of autism and behaviours. She is a faculty member of the Neuroscience Graduate Diploma Program and also part of the interdisciplinary Autism Alliance Research Group in York’s Faculty of Health. By working together, researchers in the Autism Alliance are seeking to understand the whole individual, working from the level of genes to cells to behaviour and the family.

Crawford’s laboratory at York has produced a number of important results already, using a state-of-the-art microscope imaging system funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund, and research investment from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

A recently published study by Crawford and York graduate student Javaneh Tamiji showed for the first time how the drug misoprostol, which was misused by pregnant women in Brazil to terminate pregnancies, actually interferes with neuronal cell function.

When ‘peace, order and good government’ trump individual liberties

A majority of Canadians – 58 per cent – told pollsters [during the 1970 FLQ crisis] that terrorism threats outweighed the protection of their individual rights and freedoms, and the due process of law, wrote columnist Michael Valpy in The Globe and Mail Oct. 5. Sixty per cent said they would give police the power to randomly stop and search themselves or their vehicle. A small majority (53 per cent) even said that law enforcement officials should be given the power to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely without specific charges.

Where does this thinking come from – if Canadians rate the Charter near the top of the list of things that symbolize their national identity, right up there with the majesty of the land and hockey?

Bruce Ryder, a constitutional legal scholar in York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, looks for an answer in an older cultural theory of Canada. He sees in Canada’s Tory traditions more concern for the well-being of society than for individual freedom. “There’s arguably distinct features of Canadian culture that aren’t particularly friendly to civil liberties by dissenting individuals or groups,” he says.

Shaped bracelets hottest thing in schoolyard

While teachers here call Silly Bandz a nuisance, in the US the fad proved so distracting that some elementary schools banned them. Educators in Canada, so far, appear to be more flexible, wrote the Toronto Star Oct. 5 in a story about the coloured, fun-shaped rubber-band bracelets.

Myriam Mongrain, a clinical psychologist and professor at York University, said she too has been “buying dozens and dozens” for her two young boys and can’t get over kids’ fascination with them. “This is a non-aggressive toy,” she said. “Many things that children now enjoy, especially video games or any hand-held device, they involved some sort of violence…I think this is pretty benign…. It’s a great opportunity for kids to interact with one another in a way that’s agreeable and nice.”

Scientists almost say ATV riding is exercise

Researchers have broken new ground, leaving twin knobby tread marks in their wake, with the revelation that riding an all-terrain vehicle is a wonderful way of improving your aerobic fitness. Talk about good news for Northern man, wrote humour columnist Tom Mills in The Sault Star Oct. 5.

According to an abstract in July 2010’s Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, “this alternative form of activity conforms to the recommended physical activity guidelines and can be effective for achieving beneficial changes in health and fitness.”

Lead author Jamie Burr (PhD ’10), of York University’s Faculty of Health, compares the aerobic demand of off-road riding to “rock climbing and alpine skiing.” Golf too, but probably without a cart.

OK, as some skeptical spouses might be suspecting, the research by Burr’s team was funded by the ATV industry. But the study was peer-reviewed by genuine independent scientists, so we won’t have to drink a six pack of beer before getting revved up about it.