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UCLA Leading NIMH-funded Study of Autism Genetics in African Americans

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – University of California, Los Angeles, researchers have reeled in a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health that they will use to study genetic variants among African Americans that heighten risk for autism spectrum disorder.

The National Institutes of Health said today, World Autism Awareness Day, that the grant was awarded under the Autism Centers of Excellence network program, which has now funded a total of 11 centers.

UCLA leads this ACE network, which focuses on genetics components of the disease, and it includes partners at Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Emory University; Johns Hopkins University; Washington University; and Yale University.

UCLA School of Medicine neurology and psychiatry Professor Daniel Geschwind, who holds a chair in human genetics at the school, will head the study of African American genetics and autism.

UCLA and its network partners plan to build on earlier research to identify genetic variants that are associated with autism susceptibility by adding genetic data from at least 600 African-American families that have a child with ASD.

The aim of this study is to discover gene variants among those with self-reported African ancestry —a population that has not been well represented in ASD genetics research — and to compare those with genetic risk factors that have already been identified in white populations.

They say that the genetic, phenotypic, and clinical data from the research, which will be made publicly available, will help them to understand disparities in the diagnosis of ASD and access to care for this population.

This ACE network has already generated large amounts of data over the past four years about autism genetics and has made these data and biomaterials available through the NIMH Genetics Initiative and the Autism Genetics Resource Exchange.

The partners plan to use this funding to "take a major new direction," according to the research proposal abstract, by homing in on African Americans.

The efforts will include genome-wide association studies of ASD-related endophenotypes and predictive variables such as language delay, sex, and head circumference. They also plan to conduct whole-exome sequencing and analysis of copy-number variation using SNP arrays, and to provide a resource on genome-wide CNV and coding sequence variation in ASD.

The ACE partners will prioritize these variants using gene-expression profiling, and they will test genetic risk factors from mostly European samples for associations with the African-American samples to determine whether these cohorts share some of the same genetic risk factors and to identify rare, recurrent variants.