"We found that some parents who have a child with autism process face information in a subtly but clearly different way from other parents," Adolphs said. "This is evidence for the hypothesis that the parents with the autistic child have brains that function somewhat differently as well."
He and other researchers are currently investigating that idea through brain imaging studies. One area of interest is the amygdala, a region located on either side of the brain in the medial temporal lobe that is known to process information about facial emotions and may have abnormal volume in both autistic individuals and their nonautistic siblings.
The finding indicates that certain aspects of autism do run in families. Although such a genetic link was noted in the 1940s in the earliest descriptions of autism, "our study adds considerable specific detail to the story," Adolphs said.
"Our data strongly suggest that genetic factors make a substantial contribution to autism, but that does not mean that all of the cause of autism is genetic. Together with many other studies, our study argues that genetic factors play a very important role in autism, while leaving open a role for other, environmental factors," he said.
UNC and Caltech are currently working together to follow up on the finding by looking at the neural circuitry of face processing in parents of autistic individuals, using functional MRI in a National Institutes of Health-funded study.
"We hope that this research contributes towards a cure for autism, even if only indirectly," Adolphs said. "Once we understand better how people with autism and their relatives proc
|Contact: Tom Hughes|
University of North Carolina School of Medicine