One of areas of genetic interest of autism is a region of chromosome 15. Only about 3% of people with autism have the mutation, but 80% of those with the mutation have autism. It is so important that people with duplications of this area have formed their own advocacy group called the Dup15 Alliance. I was honored to attend their family an scientific meeting and give a summary of what scientists have learned about autism through studying this chromosome, how kids with this mutation and autism are similar and different from those with autism but not the mutation, how the families are managing life threatening seizures, what the gene does, what the brains look like, and how mutations of this chromosome do in fact interact with the environment. Thank you to the scientists who study this area and the very brave, selfless and amazing parents who I talked to.
With hundreds of genes, thousands of environmental factors, and now sex being variables in determining risk for autism, where should science start? Over the decades researchers have been able to start narrowing down the combinations based on specific behaviors of interest, genes, and mechanisms which may narrow down which gene, which environmental factor and which sex. Dr. Sara Schaafsma and Dr. Donald Pfaff from Rockefeller University combined the three, and found that epigenetic changes in an autism risk gene called contact in associated protein like 2 contributed to elevation of risk for autism behaviors following maternal infection. In other words, being male and having the mutation produced small changes, increased by the environmental factor. In another separate study, Dr. Keith Dunaway and Dr. Janine LaSalle at UC Davis used brain tissue to look at a rare variant for autism on chromosome 15. Typically, mutations of this area of the genome are thought to cause autism. However, the effects of these mutations are also increased when environmental factors are present, leading to more de novo mutations. These are all examples of scientific breakthroughs that are helping better understand what causes autism. Even when it looks like one thing, it’s multiple things.
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.