Today’s science news from the Weizmann Institute covers research in neurobiology, environmental science and cancer immunology.

• In the first, scientists identified a likely biological marker for autism that shows up even in very young children. Diagnoses of autism are generally not possible so early, as the signs typically appear gradually throughout the first 3-4 years of life. The scientists used fMRI to scan the brains of children aged 1-3 who were just starting to show signs of autistic behavior. Their method: scanning the brains of toddlers while they sleep. It seems that even asleep, brain activity in autistic toddlers is different. In particular, the researchers saw irregularities in synchronization between the left and right hemispheres. The areas tied to language and communication in each half normally exhibit slow fluctuations that are in sync with the other side, but the synchronization was off in around 70% of the autistic toddlers. The more severe their autism, the more pronounced this phenomenon appeared to be. For the near future, the scientists hope this insight can be used to develop early diagnostic tools for the disorder.

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As compared to the control brain (top), the autistic brain (bottom) shows weaker inter-hemispheric synchronization in several areas, particularly the superior temporal gyrus (light blue) and the inferior frontal gyrus (red)

• In today’s scientific world, ideas and methods flow back and forth between all sorts of seemingly unrelated disciplines. A collaborative effort between a Weizmann Institute scientist and an NOAA researcher suggests that a version of the predator-prey population model (used to describe, for instance, the shared ecology of cheetah and gazelle populations) may accurately describe cycles of cloud formation and rain.

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Classic predator-prey model

In the watery version of the model, rain is the predator, clouds are the prey and atmospheric aerosols that seed cloud droplets take the place of the grasslands that provide nutrition to the prey population. Using equations built from the basic principles, the model reveals the sharp transitions between stable and unstable states, as well as the contribution of changes in aerosol levels to shifts in rainfall patterns. Because clouds are still considered big “question marks” in climate change predictions, models like this one can help clarify the bigger picture.

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Cloud-rain-aerosol oscillations

• Finally, research by Weizmann Institute immunologists aims to turn a pricey, time-consuming, personalized treatment into an off-the-shelf, universal cancer therapy. In the current therapy, which is now undergoing early-phase clinical trials, a patient’s own immune cells are modified outside the body and reinjected. In the new method – which has so far been shown to work in mice – patients would receive injections of immune cells from a ready-made, common donor pool. To prevent rejection of these foreign cells, the patients also receive a mild dose of radiation – just enough to temporarily prevent the immune cells from being given the boot until after they have had a chance to attack the tumor. And, to ensure that these donor immune cells put the short time they have to the best use, they are equipped with receptors for recognizing the cancer cells they are meant to destroy.

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