- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

A global research coalition has found preliminary evidence that suggests an individual gene and region of a chromosome are linked to the development of autism.

The study by the Autism Genome Project (AGP) — a consortium that includes 137 scientists from more than 50 research centers in 19 countries — was the largest of its kind ever conducted.

The findings were published online last week in Nature Genetics. They are to appear in the print version of that journal next month.

The study used “gene chip” technology to search for similarities in the DNA of autistic children whose families had at least two members with the complex brain disorder.

Autism, which is usually not diagnosed until after age 3, inhibits a person’s ability to communicate and form social relationships. It is often accompanied by extreme behavioral problems.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimated that one in 150 U.S. children are autistic, a figure higher than previously thought.

Researchers in the study found a gene called neurexin 1, which they say appears to have a role in susceptibility for autism. Neurexin 1 is in a family of genes involved with the neurotransmitter glutamate. Defects in glutamate function previously have been implicated in autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

The researchers also identified a section of chromosome 11 that may contain a gene that could predispose someone to autism. That specific gene has not yet been pinpointed.

“We have known for years that autism is a strongly genetic disorder. This study helps us to significantly advance research into genetic mechanisms,” said Dr. Fred Volkmar, a professor of child psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology at Yale University, an author of the report.

Ami Klin, another author who helps Dr. Volkmar run Yale’s autism program, said: “The discovery of genes associated with autism and their interactions should now set in motion an even stronger effort to develop new pharmacological treatments [for autism] to change the natural course” of this disease.

Autism rates have increased tenfold in the past decade, reflecting increased awareness, a broadening of the definition and better educational services. The AGP was formed in 2002 to enhance collaboration to find the cause of the disease.

AGP researchers theorize there may be five or six primary genes responsible for autism, and that 30 or more other genes could be involved in its development.

The research was funded by the nonprofit group Autism Speaks, which promotes autism awareness and raises money for autism research.

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