New Autism Research Indicates Environmental Factors as CausePosted: Tue, Aug 2, 2011
By: Danielle Heard, MS, HHC
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New scientific research found that environmental factors increase children's susceptibility to developing autism more than genetics.
The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Institute for Human Genetics and Stanford University teamed together to lead one of the largest genetic research studies conducted to date on sets of twins to uncover genetic components of autism. Additional research was contributed by Kaiser Permanente, University of California Davis, the Autism Genetic Research Exchange and the California Department of Health.
The research study, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and by Autism Speaks, found that environmental factors represented more than half of a child's susceptibility for developing autism. In the most severe cases of autism, environmental factors represented 55% and even higher at 58% as a cause of broad spectrum disorders. Genetics represented 37% and 38% of the risk, respectively. The research findings were published last month in the Archives of General Psychiatry: July 2011 Issue.
According to UCSF geneticist Neil Risch PhD, director of the UCSF Institute for Human Genetics and the senior author of the paper, "Autism had been thought to be the most heritable of all neurodevelopmental disorders, with a few small twin studies suggesting a 90 percent link. It turns out the genetic component still plays an important role, but in our study, it was overshadowed by the environmental factors shared by twins."
Joachim Hallmayer, MD, the first author of the research paper and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University further stated that the disorder's manifestation in very young children indicates a cause early in life and possibly during pregnancy, but what exactly those environmental factors are is the multimillion dollar question. "Our work suggests that the role of environmental factors has been underestimated."
The research study looked at both identical and fraternal twins. "The difference between the identical and fraternal rates shows that genetics definitely plays a role in the disorder," said Risch, "But the fact that the fraternal twins have such a high rate shows that their shared environment is contributing significantly to their susceptibility."
Autism expert Lisa Croen, PhD, director of the Autism Research Program at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, CA added that the findings suggest that events during pregnancy should be a focus for future research into the origins of autism.
Croen is also the lead author of a second research study by Kaiser Permanente on prenatal exposure to anti-depressants and the risk of autism spectrum disorders. The study, which was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was also published in the Archives of General Psychiatry: July 2011 Issue.
In the Kaiser Permanente study, researchers reported a two-fold increased risk of autism spectrum disorder associated with maternal treatment with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) anti-depressants during the year before delivery. Croen noted that the strongest effect was associated with first trimester treatment.
Additionally, the research found that mothers of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder were twice as likely to have at least one anti-depressant prescription in the year prior to delivery of the child and over three times as likely to have a prescription in the first trimester of pregnancy, but Croen has said that additional research studies are needed to replicate and extend these findings.
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