Posts Tagged ‘ nature ’

Autism And Paternal Age: What’s The Take-Home Message For Parents?

Friday, August 31st, 2012

You may have read recently about a study that links the age of a father with the risk for autism. While there is some real science here to report, there is also the possibility of making too much of all this. So let’s break it down. 

Prior studies have suggested a link between the age of a dad and the risk for autism – as a dad’s age increases, so does the risk. The new study (published in the journal Nature) reports on a possible mechanism for this: it involves the number of genetic mutations that are passed on to a child. Click here to read a summary in the journal.

There are a few underlying ideas that are important. This line of research is showing that genetic mutations are much more frequent in a father’s sperm than in a mother’s egg. This makes sense, in that the sperm are produced throughout the lifespan in men, but women are born with their lifelong supply of egg cells. The authors of the Nature paper suggest that there is a steady increase across decades in a man’s life – so that when you are 40 you will produce more mutations than when you are 30 (and so on).

What’s the connection with autism? Well, right now it is a very indirect association. There is lots of interest in the idea that spontaneous mutations play a role in causing autism. Lots of papers have been published on this over the last few years. So the thinking here is something like connecting the dots – if spontaneous mutations are involved in the etiology of autism, and a dad’s age is a primary source of such mutations, then perhaps there is a link.

All that said, keep in mind the following:

1) The new study published in Nature did not provide any direct association between the mutations and autism

2) The assumption is that many of the mutations are harmless (and in fact somewhat normative)

3) There is, at this point, no clinical screening process to determine or suggest that a father passed on a mutation to a child

4) There are, at this point, no genetic counseling implications

Perhaps most importantly, there are lots of factors that contribute to the etiology of autism. There are certainly heritable factors that go beyond spontaneous mutations. And there are undoubtedly non-genetic factors as well.

So where are we at? At this point, spontaneous mutations are just more potential pieces of the puzzle with respect to the etiology of autism. They will continue to be researched and, hopefully, may in the future reveal more about the underlying biology of the disorder. But it’s way too early to begin to transfer the basic science into diagnostics and prevention – and too early to know what role spontaneous mutations will be shown to play in the broader context of multifactorial influences on autism.

DNA image via




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Stimulating The Scientist Inside Your Child: “Family Sky Fun”

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

There have been many laments by educators, psychologists, and pediatricians that children do not explore nature enough these days. A recent feature at talked about the unique learning opportunities parents can give their kids by visiting nature places. But you can also find opportunities to stimulate your child’s scientific thinking right at home, just by looking up at the sky.  

Dr. Juan Ivaldi, a chemist, author, and astronomy educator, has recently written a wonderful piece called “Family Sky Fun: Five Ways to Have Fun With the Sky” on his blog devoted to essential astronomy. He suggests five interactive ways for parents to explore the sky, both day and night, with their children. These include:

  • Making a human sundial (all you need is a sunny day, a piece of chalk if you have a sidewalk or paved driveway, or a stick or rock if you are in your backyard or a field)
  • Tracking the phases of the moon (it only takes a few minutes per day for about a month)
  • Holding in your hand the elements that make up the moon (hint: you just need dirt and rocks)
  • Finding the brightest star in the sky (you can combine this with eating s’mores if you like)
  • Locating constellations (particularly the Big Dipper and Orion)

You can read the details of how to do these things with your kids on Dr. Ivaldi’s blog. What’s really great about his suggestions is that they:

  • Promote parent-child interaction
  • Get kids (and parents) outside
  • Train young eyes to perceive the natural world

Every child experiences a sense of wonder about nature. So while buying science-based toys and visiting museums are terrific ways to expose your child to science, there is no substitute for getting children outside and giving them ways to explore the world. After all, that’s what scientists do!

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