How Kids See the World Depends a Lot on Genetics

Baby in eye gaze study

Caption: Child watches video while researchers track his eye movements.
Credit: Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis

From the time we are born, most of us humans closely watch the world around us, paying special attention to people’s faces and expressions. Now, for the first time, an NIH-funded team has shown that the ways in which children look at faces and many other things are strongly influenced by the genes they’ve inherited from their parents.

The findings come from experiments that tracked the eye movements of toddlers watching videos of other kids or adult caregivers. The experiments showed that identical twins—who share the same genes and the same home environment—spend almost precisely the same proportion of time looking at faces, even when watching different videos. And when identical twins watched the same video, they tended to look at the same thing at almost exactly the same time! In contrast, fraternal twins—who shared the same home environment, but, on average, shared just half of their genes—had patterns of eye movement that were far less similar.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that the visual behaviors most affected in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—attention to another person’s eyes and mouth—were those that also appeared to be the most heavily influenced by genetics. The discovery makes an important connection between two well-known features of ASD: a strong hereditary component and poor eye contact with other people.

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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Progress Toward Earlier Diagnosis

Sleeping baby

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Research shows that the roots of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) generally start early—most likely in the womb. That’s one more reason, on top of a large number of epidemiological studies, why current claims about the role of vaccines in causing autism can’t be right. But how early is ASD detectable? It’s a critical question, since early intervention has been shown to help limit the effects of autism. The problem is there’s currently no reliable way to detect ASD until around 18–24 months, when the social deficits and repetitive behaviors associated with the condition begin to appear.

Several months ago, an NIH-funded team offered promising evidence that it may be possible to detect ASD in high-risk 1-year-olds by shifting attention from how kids act to how their brains have grown [1]. Now, new evidence from that same team suggests that neurological signs of ASD might be detectable even earlier.

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Brain Scans Show Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Unhappy baby

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For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), early diagnosis is critical to allow for possible interventions at a time when the brain is most amenable to change. But that’s been tough to implement for a simple reason: the symptoms of ASD, such as communication difficulties, social deficits, and repetitive behaviors, often do not show up until a child turns 2 or even 3 years old.

Now, an NIH-funded research team has news that may pave the way for earlier detection of ASD. The key is to shift the diagnostic focus from how kids act to how their brains grow. In their brain imaging study, the researchers found that, compared to other children, youngsters with ASD showed unusually rapid brain growth from infancy to age 2. In fact, the growth differences were already evident by their first birthdays, well before autistic behaviors typically emerge.

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Autism Architecture: Unrolling the Genetic Blueprint

An array of childrenWe know that a combination of genetic and environmental factors influence a child’s risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is a diverse group of developmental brain conditions that disrupt language, communication, and social interaction. Still, there remain a great many unknowns, including the crucial issues of what proportion of ASD risk is due to genes and what sorts of genes are involved. Answering such questions may hold the key to expanding our understanding of the disorder—and thereby to devising better ways to help the millions of Americans whose lives are touched by ASD [1].

Last year, I shared how NIH-funded researchers had identified rare, spontaneous genetic mutations that appear to play a role in causing ASD. Now, there’s additional news to report. In the largest study of its kind to date, an international team supported by NIH recently discovered that common, inherited genetic variants, acting in tandem with each other or with rarer variants, can also set the stage for ASD—accounting for nearly half of the risk for what’s called “strictly defined autism,” the full-blown manifestation of the disorder. And, when the effects of both rare and common genetic variants are tallied up, we can now trace about 50 to 60 percent of the risk of strictly defined autism to genetic factors.

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Network News: Gene Discoveries for Autism

Young boy sitting on the ground staring at his feet

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Affecting an estimated 1 in 88 U.S. children, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complicated and diverse group of developmental brain disorders that interfere with language, normal communication, and social interaction. Unlike some other conditions that are caused by mutations in a single gene, as many as 1,000 genes, as well as various environmental factors, are suspected to contribute to the risk of developing ASD. That’s daunting because before we can develop broadly-applicable treatments, we need to figure out which are the key genes, what brain cells they control, and when they are active.

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