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Predicting Autism

One of the most frightening and frustrating things about autism spectrum disorders is that we don't fully know what causes it or how to determine which children will have it until they start to show symptoms. The opacity of ASD has led to some wild speculation about what causes it, even leading some people to shun science and risk lives by neglecting have their children vaccinated, in the misdirected fear that the two are linked. But new research suggests there may be a better way to predict who will get ASD.

A Canadian-led team of genomics researchers says they have worked up a formula that will enable them to calculate the genetic probability that a person will develop ASD, making it possible to predict who may need interventions at an earlier age. Their research also suggests that these genes are switched on during prenatal development — that knowledge could help narrow down the list of any possible environmental factors involved in the disease. The group's research was published over the weekend in Nature Genetics' online edition.

The group examined a massive amount of genetic data on ASD from the genomes of 3,000 North American and European families seeking to home in on ASD-relevant genes and variants, though they focused on highly conserved exons in those genes that are expressed early on during brain development.

"We've stumbled upon the core group of genes that is necessary for human cognition," Stephen Scherer, a senior scientist at Sick Kids Hospital and leader of the study, tells the Globe and Mail.

"We’re going to try to develop this into a tool that clinicians [could] use — and that will happen in the next year," says Scherer. The Globe and Mail adds that the US firm Lineagen has already shown interest in incorporating the new findings into its diagnostic tests.