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Largest-Ever Genetic Study of Autism Yields New Insights

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Baby and DNA Strands

Anyone who’s spent time with people affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can tell you that it’s a very complex puzzle. The wide variability seen among individuals with this group of developmental brain disorders, which can disrupt communication, behavior control, and social skills, has also posed a huge challenge for researchers trying to identify underlying genetic and environmental factors. So, it’s no surprise that there’s been considerable interest in the recent findings of the largest-ever genetic study of ASD.

In a landmark study that analyzed the DNA of more than 35,000 people from around the world, the NIH-funded international Autism Sequencing Consortium (ASC) identified variants in 102 genes associated with increased risk of developing ASD, up from 65 identified previously. Of the 102 genes, 60 had not been previously linked to ASD and 53 appeared to be primarily connected to ASD as opposed to other types of intellectual disability or developmental delay. It is expected that this newfound genetic knowledge will serve to improve understanding of the complex biological mechanisms involved in ASD, ultimately paving the way for new approaches to diagnosis and treatment.

The study reported in the journal Cell was led by Joseph Buxbaum, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York; Stephan Sanders, University of California, San Francisco; Kathryn Roeder, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA; and Mark Daly, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA. These researchers and their teams faced what might seem like a rather daunting task.

While common genetic variants collectively are known to contribute substantially to ASD, rare variants have been recognized individually as more major contributors to a person’s risk of developing ASD. The challenge was how to find such rare variants—whether inherited or newly arising.

To do so, the researchers needed to analyze a enormous amount of DNA data. Fortunately, they and their ASC colleagues already had assembled a vast trove of data. Over the last decade, the ASC had collected DNA samples with full consent from thousands of people with and without ASD, including unaffected siblings and parents. All were aggregated with other studies, and, at the time of this investigation, they had gathered 35,584 unique samples. Those included more than 21,000 family-based samples and almost 12,000 samples from people diagnosed with ASD.

In search of rare genetic alterations, they sequenced whole exomes, the approximately 1.5 percent of the genome that codes for proteins. Their search produced a list of 102 ASD-associated genes, including 30 that had never been implicated in any developmental brain disorder previously.

But that was just the beginning. Next, the ASC team dug deeper into this list. The researchers knew from previous work that up to half of people with ASD also have an intellectual disability or developmental delay. Many of the associated genes overlap, meaning they play roles in both outcomes. So, in one set of analyses, the team compared the list to the results of another genetic study of people diagnosed with developmental delays, including problems with learning or gross motor skills such as delayed walking.

The detailed comparison allowed them to discern genes that are more associated with features of ASD, as opposed to those that are more specific to these developmental delays. It turns out that 49 of the 102 autism-associated genes were altered more often in people with developmental delay than in those diagnosed with ASD. The other 53 were altered more often in ASD, suggesting that they may be more closely linked to this condition’s unique features.

Further study also showed that people who carried alterations in genes found predominantly in ASD also had better intellectual function. They also were more likely to have learned to walk without a developmental delay.

The 102 new genes fell primarily into one of two categories. Many play a role in the brain’s neural connections. The rest are involved primarily in switching other genes on and off in brain development. Interestingly, they are expressed both in excitatory neurons, which are active in sending signals in the brain, and in inhibitory neurons that squelch such activity. Many of these genes are also commonly expressed in the brain’s cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain that is responsible for many complex behaviors.

Overall, these findings underscore that ASD truly does exist on a spectrum. Indeed, there are many molecular paths to this disorder. The ASC researchers continue to collect samples, so we can expect this list of 102 genes will continue to expand in the future.

With these gene discoveries in hand, the researchers will now also turn their attention to unravelling additional details about how these genes function in the brain. The hope is that this growing list of genes will converge on a smaller number of important molecular pathways, pointing the way to new and more precise ways of treating ASD in all its complexity.

Reference:

[1] Large-scale exome sequencing study implicates both developmental and functional changes in the neurobiology of autism. Satterstrom FK, Kosmicki JA, Wang J, Breen MS, De Rubeis S, An JY, Peng M, Collins R, Grove J, Klei L, Stevens C, Reichert J, Mulhern MS, Artomov M, Gerges S, Sheppard B, Xu X, Bhaduri A, Norman U, Brand H, Schwartz G, Nguyen R, Guerrero EE, Dias C; Autism Sequencing Consortium; iPSYCH-Broad Consortium, Betancur C, Cook EH, Gallagher L, Gill M, Sutcliffe JS, Thurm A, Zwick ME, Børglum AD, State MW, Cicek AE, Talkowski ME, Cutler DJ, Devlin B, Sanders SJ, Roeder K, Daly MJ, Buxbaum JD.Cell. 2020 Jan 23. {Epub ahead of print]

Links:

Autism Spectrum Disorder (NIH/National Institute of Mental Health)

Joseph Buxbaum (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York)

Sanders Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

Kathryn Roeder (Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA)

Mark Daly (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA)

Autism Sequencing Consortium (Emory University, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute Mental Health; National Human Genome Research Institute


Study Associates Frequent Digital Media Use in Teens with ADHD Symptoms

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Teens using smart phones

Credit: Thinkstock/monkeybusinessimages

The rise of smart phones, tablets, and other mobile technologies has put digital media, quite literally, at the fingertips of today’s youth. Most teens now have ready access to a smartphone, with about half spending the majority of their waking hours texting, checking social media sites, watching videos, or otherwise engaged online [1].

So, what does this increased access to digital media—along with the instant gratification that it provides—mean for teens’ health and wellbeing? In a two-year study of more than 2,500 high school students in Los Angeles, NIH-funded researchers found that those who consumed the most digital media were also the most likely to develop symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) [2].


Creative Minds: Seeing Memories in a New Light

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Steve Ramirez

Steve Ramirez/Joshua Sariñana

Whether it’s lacing up for a morning run, eating blueberry scones, or cheering on the New England Patriots, Steve Ramirez loves life and just about everything in it. As an undergraduate at Boston University, this joie de vivre actually made Ramirez anxious about choosing just one major. A serendipitous conversation helped him realize that all of the amazing man-made stuff in our world has a common source: the human brain.

So, Ramirez decided to pursue neuroscience and began exploring the nature of memory. Employing optogenetics (using light to control brain cells) in mice, he tagged specific neurons that housed fear-inducing memories, making the neurons light sensitive and amenable to being switched on at will.

In groundbreaking studies that earned him a spot in Forbes 2015 “30 Under 30” list, Ramirez showed that it’s possible to reactivate memories experimentally in a new context, recasting them in either a more negative or positive behavior-changing light [1–3]. Now, with support from a 2016 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Ramirez, who runs his own lab at Boston University, will explore whether activating good memories holds promise for alleviating chronic stress and psychiatric disease.


Widening Gap in U.S. Life Expectancy

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Map of life expectancies

Caption: Life expectancy at birth by county, 2014. Life expectancy into 80s (blue), 70s (green, yellow, orange), 60s (red).

Americans are living longer than ever before, thanks in large part to NIH-supported research. But a new, heavily publicized study shows that recent gains in longevity aren’t being enjoyed equally in all corners of the United States. In fact, depending on where you live in this great country, life expectancy can vary more than 20 years—a surprisingly wide gap that has widened significantly in recent decades.

Researchers attribute this disturbing gap to a variety of social and economic influences, as well as differences in modifiable behavioral and lifestyle factors, such as obesity, inactivity, and tobacco use. The findings serve as a sobering reminder that, despite the considerable progress made possible by biomedical science, more research is needed to figure out better ways of addressing health disparities and improving life expectancy for all Americans.

In the new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a research team, partially funded by NIH, found that the average American baby born in 2014 can expect to live to about age 79 [1]. That’s up from a national average of about 73 in 1980 and around 68 in 1950. However, babies born in 2014 in remote Oglala Lakota County, SD, home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, can expect to live only about 66 years. That’s in stark contrast to a child born about 400 miles away in Summit County, CO, where life expectancy at birth now exceeds age 86.


Are E-cigarettes Leading More Kids to Smoke?

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Cigarettes vs. E-Cigarettes

Thinkstock\MilknCoffee

Today, thanks to decades of educational efforts about the serious health consequences of inhaled tobacco, fewer young people than ever smoke cigarettes in the United States. So, it’s interesting that a growing of number of middle and high school kids are using e-cigarettes—electronic devices that vaporize flavored liquid that generally contains nicotine.

E-cigarettes come with their own health risks, including lung inflammation, asthma, and respiratory infections. But their supporters argue that “vaping,” as it’s often called, might provide an option that would help young people steer clear of traditional cigarettes and the attendant future risks of lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and other serious health conditions. Now, a new NIH-funded study finds that this is—pardon the pun—mostly a pipe dream.

Analyzing the self-reported smoking behaviors of thousands of schoolkids nationwide, researchers found no evidence that the availability of e-cigarettes has served to accelerate the decline in youth smoking. In fact, the researchers concluded the opposite: the popularity of e-cigarettes has led more kids—not fewer—to get hooked on nicotine, which meets all criteria for being an addictive substance.


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