Scientists Identify a Large Number of Specific Genes Linked to Autism Risk

A recently published study has stated that dozens of new genes may play a role in causing autism. Scientists identified over 60 genes with a 90% chance of increasing the child’s risk for autism. Previous to this study, research had only confirmed 11 genes with this level of certainty for risk.

Past studies have shown how genetics play a role in the development of autism, but this study particularly focuses on how specific genetic mutations can lead to the disorder. Scientists have noted that these specific genes tend to cluster around three sets of important biological functions. Each of these functions can affect traits commonly associated with autism. The first set focuses on the development of synapses in the brain, essential for communication between nerves. The second set creates genetic instructions, and the third conducts DNA packaging in cells.

This genetic-focused research study is essential in helping to treat various disorders. Dr. Matthew State, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco, states, “It’s the understanding of biology at that level that’s helped treatments for cancer. It’s something we’ve been missing in psychiatric disorders in general.” Similar studies for diseases such as childhood leukemia have enabled medical teams to take the disease from having a high level of fatality to something that is treatable. Now, this research can be applied to psychiatric and neurological disorders. State adds, “[Research has] laid the groundwork for a transformed understanding of the disorder and hopefully a transformation in how we’re able to diagnose and treat it.”

Autism has been known for being a very complex disorder, and at times difficult to treat because it has been tough to grasp just how and why it develops. Now, by analyzing the genetic foundations of the disorder, it may be possible to provide more personalized treatments based on an individual’s unique gene set. Dan Smith, a senior director of neuroscience, states, “If everybody were to be genotyped when they’re diagnosed, and the more this is studied, the more we’ll be able to say what the biological causes are. [Therefore], we can target your symptoms with more personalized medicine.” 

Along with the development of more personalized treatments, the study also provides insight into how the environment may play a role in the development of autism disorders. Recent research has looked into how environmental factors can cause genes to mutate. State says, “This is going to give us an opportunity to study the interactions between genes and the environment”. Researchers are optimistic that these studies will lead to a better understanding of the disorder, and therefore better treatment for all individuals on the spectrum.

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