1 in 68 kids have autism, including my 6-year-old, non-verbal son, Liam, so it's no surprise scientists continue to investigate its genetic causes.
In a recent study Stanford researchers have "identified a molecular network of genes known to contribute to autism spectrum disorders (ASD)," reports FOX News. This is a significant breakthrough in autism research because scientists have scoured the human genome for decades -- not an easy task because there are so many genes!
Published in the journal Molecular Systems, Biology, the study focused on genome sequencing for 25 autistic individuals in order to find common molecular pathways with mutations. Researchers discovered something illuminating: a module of 119 proteins with links to ASD genes. The same genes were then found in 500 more individuals who were diagnosed along the spectrum.
"The module we identified which is enriched in autism genes had two distinct components. One of these components was expressed throughout different regions of the brain," says Michael Snyder, lead author of the study. The second component was centered on the corpus callosum, an area of the brain that facilitates communication between the right and left hemispheres. Scientists believe disruptions in the corpus callosum can cause ASD. Researchers also discovered that a lack of myelin — a fatty, protein sheath that helps with the speed of sending information across nerve cells — can also contribute to autistic traits.
All this information is just the tip of the genetic iceberg. Scientists are still releasing new studies, and the National Institute of Mental Health even set up its own Autism Coordinating Committee a few years ago. In 2014 alone, researchers have made startling discoveries, including finding connections between prenatal development and autism. But there's still a long way to go.
Still I often wonder: what does genetic research really mean for parents and kids on the spectrum? Will studying genes lead to a "cure" in Liam's lifetime? Will he even want a cure?
I turn these questions over and over in my mind as I help Liam through each day's therapy, daily living skills, and other "normal" kid stuff. I may not have all the answers yet, but I do know this: learning about autism and genetics help me be a better mom. Just thinking about this new study when Liam's searching for a word or struggling to put his shoes on, reminds me that the pathways in his brain work very differently than those of Eliot, his younger (extra precocious) brother. And that's a mighty relevant translation of gene research from faraway labs into my living room.
Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam (6) and Eliot (4). Her writing has appeared in the Autism and Asperger's Digest (2011-2013), Parents, and the book collection Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Parenting Kids with Special Needs. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter (@jamiepacton).
Image: DNA sequence via Shutterstock