The findings, based on genetic samples from nearly 1,200 families with two or more children who have autism, were published today in Nature Genetics by more than 120 scientists from Europe and North America who make up the Autism Genome Project.
The project was launched in 2002 by scientists at 50 institutions to share data, samples and expertise in an effort to speed up the process of identifying susceptibility genes, those that heighten a child's risk of having the developmental disorder. Seven University of Washington researchers are coauthors of the paper including lead project investigators Gerard Schellenberg and Geraldine Dawson.
The research was funded by Autism Speaks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness of autism and raising money to fund autism research, and the National Institutes of Health. The consortium scientists utilized statistical power from the largest set of autism-related genetic material yet examined. The researchers found neurexin 1, part of a family of genes that plays a role with the neurotransmitter glutamate, and a still-to-be-pinpointed gene on chromosome 11 to be likely susceptibility genes for autism.
"Neurexin 1 is a highly likely candidate," said Schellenberg, a researcher at the Puget Sound Veterans Affairs Medical Center and a research professor of medicine at the UW. "It is a protein that enables one neuron to contact another neuron. Often you don't have any idea of what a gene does, but in this case we know neurexin 1 is involved at sites where the neurotransmitter glutamate is released. Glutamate is a brain chemical that has been previously implicated in autism. The new finding suggests that the gene is potentially important in autism.
Source:University of Washington