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Research Highlights Genetic Risk for Autism
Date:4/28/2009

es, autism is caused by a combination of several genes, and they may interact with environmental factors that we have not yet identified," Dawson said. "So you could think about it as you would the risk for a heart attack. If you have high cholesterol alone and you go to your doctor, he may not be too worried. But if you have several risk factors -- high cholesterol plus high blood pressure -- the risk for getting the disease is much higher."

"So these are one of a set of genes associated with autism risk," she said. "And if you inherit the whole set, you would have a higher risk for developing the disease. But you can have these particular genes and not have a higher risk for autism."

Despite that, the findings still hold much to be excited about.

"Even though there appear to be many different genes involved in autism, what is very interesting is that the genes we're finding are clustering around the same brain function -- namely, the connections between brain cells," she said. "This is important because, when we learn new things or form memories or learn new skills, we do this by creating new connections between cells. So if there is a problem doing this, then this will affect our ability to engage in complex behaviors and learn new skills. And this could explain why people with autism have cognitive delay and have such difficulty learning new things."

"So we're getting a better picture now of what contributes to autism," Dawson said.

More information

The Autism Society of America has more on autism.



SOURCES: Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., chief science officer, Autism Speaks, New York City; teleconference, April 28, 2009, with Hakon Hakonarson, M.D., Ph.D., director, Center for Applied Genomics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Gerard D. Schellenberg, Ph.D., professor
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