26 February 2007
ByAppeared in BioNews 396
Recent research published online in the journal Nature Genetics has revealed new genetic variations which may contribute to autism.
Autism, along with related conditions such as Asperger syndrome, is characterised by a range of severity and symptoms. The conditions are therefore collectively known as autistic spectrum disorders. It's estimated that more than 580,000 people in the UK have autistic spectrum disorders. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. The disorder affects social and language skills, and the way in which a child relates to people, objects and events.
The new study is the largest of its kind, and involved one hundred and twenty scientists from Europe and North America scanning 1,200 families with a history of the condition. The project was launched in 2002 when scientists at 50 institutions formed the Autism Genome Project, in order to share data and expertise and to speed up the process of identifying genes which increase people's genetic risk of inheriting the disorder. Researchers used a technology called high density microarrays - also called 'gene chips' - which allowed them to look for genetic variations which occur more often in affected people.
The research was funded by the non-profit organisation Autism Speaks and the US National Institutes of Health. The findings suggest certain variations of the neurexin 1 gene, involved in the brain's glutamate chemical messenger system, and an as yet unrefined region of chromosome 11, may heighten risk for autism spectrum disorders.
'This project represents a new beginning in autism research, and provides an invaluable resource to researchers worldwide', said Bernie Devlin, associate professor of psychiatry and human genetics at the University of Pittsburgh and an author of the study. 'We hope that access to the tools and information developed through this project will help researchers begin to unravel the causes of autism'. The identification of risk genes is expected to provide new insight into the causes of autism, offering a route to breakthroughs in diagnosis and new treatments.