Environmental Changes to Genes in Children With Autism

Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, New York – New research appears to confirm that environmental influences on genes may play a role in the development of autism. Scientists believe that this may help explain why older pregnant women are at greater risk for having a baby with autism, Health Day reports. Scientists now know that men older than 40 are at greater risk for having a child with autism because of genetic mutations and that women aged 35 and older also have a greater chance for having a child with autism. During the study researchers looked at environmental changes to genes that could help explain this increased risk. They looked at conditions in the mother’s uterus, stress and diet, called epigenetic changes. The study, in the journal PLOS Genetics, considered 47 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 48 typically developing children of women aged 35 and older. The researchers analyzed cells that lined their cheeks, buccal epithelium. Dr. John Greally, director of the Center for Epigenomics at Einstein and study senior author said in a news release:

“We hypothesized that whatever influences lead to ASD in children of older women probably are already present in the reproductive cells that produce the embryo or during the very earliest stages of embryonic development in cells that give rise to both the buccal epithelium and the brain,”

The researchers identified two groups of altered genes of the children with autism that were different from the genes in the typically developing children. Greally said:

“Our findings suggest that, at least in some individuals with an ASD, the same pathways in the brain seem to [be] hit by both [gene] mutations and epigenetic changes. So, the severity of someone’s ASD may depend on whether or not a gene mutation is accompanied by epigenetic alterations to related genes,”

He further added:

“In the case of older mothers at risk for having children with ASDs, one possible environmental influence might the aging process itself, which could disturb epigenetic patterns in their eggs, but there are other possibilities as well,”

The original article on the HealthDay website can be read here