- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2017

New research in the study of autism further links the syndrome to changes in genes, adding more data to the complicated question of whether the environment or biology is responsible for the behavioral disorder.

In a statement released by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found a link a between where our eyes are drawn and our genetic makeup. Their research was prompted by the desire to better understand how changes in genes affect autism spectrum disorder. One of the tell-tale signs of children with autism is their reduced attention to eye contact, faces and social interaction.

There is no known cause for autism, which affects nearly one in 68 children nationwide and is categorized by social, communicative and behavioral challenges that range in severity, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The development of autism is strongly believed to be linked to genetic and chromosomal conditions, although some environmental factors that interfere with a child’s development — particularly before, during and immediately after birth — are also believed to play a role.

In the study, which was published in the journal Nature on July 12, researchers evaluated 250 typically developing children, which included 82 identical twins, 84 non-identical twins and 84 non-siblings. They additionally evaluated 88 non-twin children who were diagnosed with autism.

The scientists employed a special software to track a child’s gaze when shown videos of either an actress speaking directly to the viewer, or scenes with children interacting in day care. The software further tracked the timing and direction of the child’s eye movements and what they looked at, including the on-screen character’s eyes, mouth, body or other objects, according to the statement.

The researchers found that identical twins had much greater similarities when and where they looked at something, compared to non-twins and non-siblings. They found that the autistic children rarely looked at people’s eyes and mouths, compared with the other subjects.

Researchers believe that by identifying where eye movement is determined within the genetic code, it can help shed light on the difference in the genetic code of children with autism.

“This is a mechanism by which genes actually modify a child’s life experience,” Dr. John Constantino, from Washington University, and one of the authors of the study, said in the statement. “And, because of that, this creates a new opportunity to design interventions to ensure that children at risk for autism acquire the kind of social environmental inputs that they need.”

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