Genes: the beginnings of autism treatment targets

This week’s podcast focuses on two studies that help illustrate why studying individuals with a specific genetic mutation, or animal models with a particular genetic mutation, are so important.  MSSM researchers focused on individuals with FOXP1 Syndrome, which has a high rate of autism and could be the focus of future treatments.  In the meantime, researchers at UTSW, led by ASF fellow Christine Ochoa Escamilla, identified a particular brain chemical responsible for changes in brain activity following mutations of chromosome 16.  About 1% of people with autism have mutations in this chromosome.  Application of a chemical to counteract this chemical then led to improvements in brain activity, opening up the door to new drug targets that affect some of the more severely affected individuals with ASD.

 

Here are the references:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29088697

https://molecularautism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13229-017-0172-6

Memorial Day Memoriam: Isabelle Rapin

This week, autism lost a pioneer and advocate for autism research:  Isabelle Rapin, MD, a neurologist from New York’s Albert Einstein University.  The first part of the podcast is a brief summary of her accomplishments.  The second part is an study called “how to keep your child out of the hospital”, presenting a recent study which looked at risk factors for being an inpatient, rather than an outpatient.    These risk factors may not be able to be prevented, but hopefully through identification of what they are, situations might be managed to help those with autism and their families during a crisis situation.

 

 

Webinar: Investigating gene x environment interactions in “single gene” autisms

On May 4th, Dr. Janine LaSalle from UC Davis and (the soon to be Dr.) Keith Dunaway presented on recent research investigating the role of environmental factors in individuals with Dup15 Syndrome.  Individuals with a mutation on chromosome 15 are often diagnosed with autism and previously it had been assumed that these individuals were destined to have a diagnosis due to their genetics.  Dr. LaSalle shows that many of the genes in a critical region of chromosome 15 are tied to turning genes on and off via a process called methylation.  Environmental chemicals or other exposures may also work on these genes to turn on or off gene expression epigenetically.  The first half of the webinar reviews crucial ideas in gene x environment interactions and epigenetics, the second half describes experiments using brain tissue of those with Dup15 Syndrome and autism, as well as cell lines, to understand the role of PCBs in gene expression.

What is the focus this week? The unsung heroes of grandparents and clinicians

Scientists have studied males compared to females with autism, but rarely has there been studies about what clinicians see as differences in these two groups.  Given that they provide insight on diagnosis, needs and access to services, it is kind of important to talk to them, and a study out this week in the journal Autism did just that.  You can find the full text here:

http://journals.sagepub.com/eprint/V5p3isSVAKDbdQf2jH4Q/full

Also, scientists are starting to understand the role of exposures in parents and how they affect diagnosis of autism in their children, but this week a new wrench was thrown into the wheel:  researchers in the UK found that grandparental exposures play a role in autism diagnosis too.  Luckily, this too is open access and you can read it for yourself.  It was covered in the media and we have perspective from a parent included.

https://www.nature.com/articles/srep46179

I discuss this second project with Jill Escher, founder of the Escher Fund for Autism and co-funder of the study.

A new clue to autism found in fluid in the brain

Last week, another Baby Siblings Research Consortium Project (BSRC) published an intriguing finding which also has the bonus of being a replication.  Mark Shen, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found higher levels of extra axial fluid in the brains of infants who went on to later be diagnosed with autism, and even higher levels in those with severe autism symptoms.  Extra-axial fluid is also called cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that holds the brain steady in your head.  Other functions of extra-axial fluid and what this means on how it may contribute to autism risk are described in the podcast.  He not only explains the findings, but conveys what families should know about them and how they can help with early identification of ASD.

Exploiting genetics to understand environmental risks for autism

On March 13th, Dr. Mark Zylka from UNC gave a 60 minute overview of how researchers are using autism-relevant genetic mutations in cells to start to understand the interactions between genetics and thousands of environmental factors on gene expression.  He pointed out the convergence of pathways in how genes and these environmental factors worked in the brain, and they included:  neuroinflammation, early brain development, turning neurons on and off, and cell signaling.  Dr. Valerie Hu from George Washington University commented on the important impact of these results and perspective from her lab studying epigenetically modified genes, like RORA, which also may be sensitive to common chemicals found in our environment.  The entire webinar, including the questions that they were able to answer from participants, is found here.

Who could have thought the genetics of autism was so complicated?

On Monday, the much anticipated MSSNG study which analyzed the entire DNA sequence of over 5000 people with autism was published.  The press release can be found here.  In it, the researchers found even more genes of interest to autism.  Also, those with more of a specific type of mutation, copy number variations, had worse autism symptoms.  But of course, the story gets more complicated than just more mutations – worse behavior.  An analysis from a different group of individuals reinforced the role of copy number variations in symptoms, but when they matched the groups according to IQ, the autism symptom profiles were different.  This shows that adaptive behavior  and IQ are important to consider when considering how genetics influence autism symptoms.  Finally, another study shows how important measuring genetics is to understanding environmental factors associated with autism.  Michela Traglia reports that increases in PBDEs in moms of kids affected with autism can be explained by mutations in the gene that breaks down these chemicals.  It’s important to study genetics of autism, but also crucial to know the genetics of the entire family as well.

What we know about autism by looking in the brain

On December 13, 2016, Dr. Matthew Anderson from Beth Isreal Deaconess Medical Center presented a 45 minute webinar on recent findings in autism thanks to studying the brains of people with autism.  It covers genetics, neuropathology and immunology.  It’s a great chance to hear a quick recap of findings from an Autism BrainNet node director.  Please click above to watch the 45 minute presentation and questions from the audience.   Most importantly, anyone can be a part of this important research by registering to learn more about the Autism BrainNet at www.takesbrains.org. 


 

Why is it so hard to look them in the eye?

There is an ongoing debate about why people with autism avoid eye contact.  There is data to support both, but as this behavior emerges very early, it’s important to look at data from preverbal children to understand the origins of changes in eye contact.  Many scientists also feel that avoiding eye contact snowballs over the lifespan and deprives people with autism from developing social skills.  Infants don’t even know why they avoid eye contact so at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, researchers are using eye tracking technology to answer this question.  The findings have clear implications for early intervention strategies.

Another gene that causes autism and what families are doing about it

A gene that controls electrical activity in the brain, SCN2A, has been linked to autism for awhile.  But recently, a new study from China shows that mutations of this gene are seen in about 1% of people with autism.  This may put it into the category of the rare mutations that have a major contribution to autism symptoms.   In addition to autism, mutations of these gene are associated with seizures and epilepsy.  Because of the relatively high rates of mutations of this gene in autism and epilepsy, an amazing group of motivated families formed an organization to help support and awareness for this gene mutation.  This week’s podcast includes a message from one of the leaders of this foundation:  FamileSCN2A who are dedicated to help their children with the knowledge about their child’s genetic makeup.