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The genetic landscape of autism

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In his own words, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Professor Michael Wigler describes his approach to studying the genetic causes of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). ASD is a common condition affecting 1 to 2% of children. “It is the first disorder of behavioral and cognitive nature into which we have genetic insight,” Wigler says.

The Wigler lab has made significant contributions to autism research in the last two decades. In the early 2000s, the team discovered several genetic causes of autism in children from families with only one affected child. They also found that boys have a 50% risk of being born with ASD in a family with more than one child. The team recently uncovered how children with ASD share more genes with their fathers. But despite the progress scientists have made, he says, genetics doesn’t appear to offer a complete explanation for ASD.

“We’re still missing something, and the missing piece suggests it’s not all genetics,” Wigler says. “The maximum hope is we’re missing what we don’t understand. What is it that we’re most blind to? When we do understand, it may lead to better treatment or prevention of autism.”

Wigler’s research is now looking at how a mother’s hormones and antibodies may affect fetal development and the odds of being born with ASD. “If we learned and figured out how to monitor that maternal-fetal conflict, we might be able to avoid some of the developmental problems that result,” Wigler says.

Read the related story: After 100 years of research, autism remains a puzzle