Public Release: 

Additive effect of small gene variations can increase risk of autism spectrum disorders

University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 15, 2012 - An increased risk of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) could result from an accumulation of many small, common genetic variations rather than large-effect, rare changes in the genetic code, according to a multicenter team led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Their findings, published today in Molecular Autism, provide new insights into the genetic factors that underlie the neurodevelopmental condition.

Scientists have debated about the genetic contributions that lead to ASD in families where only one individual is affected, called simplex, versus those that have multiple affected family members, called multiplex, said senior author Bernie Devlin, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"Our team compared simplex, multiplex and unaffected families using sophisticated quantitative genetic techniques," he said. "In families where only one child has an ASD, 40 percent of the risk is inherited while in families with more than one affected child, the risk rises to 60 percent."

For the project, the team examined thousands of DNA samples from families in the Simons Simplex Collection, in which one child but no parent or sibling had an ASD; the Autism Genome Project, in which more than one child had an ASD; and unaffected families enrolled in the HealthABC Program.

In addition to reviewing nearly 1 million gene variations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), to look for inheritance patterns associated with ASD, they also ran computer simulations to plot family trees using 1,000 SNPs that appear to impact the risk of ASD.

"These small gene changes can add up even though individually they do little harm," Dr. Devlin said. "This might explain why parents who do not have autism traits can have children who do."

Other research has shown that autism and related disorders also can arise from spontaneous variations in parental genes prior to conception as well as rare mutations of larger effect that are passed on, he noted. The multiple inheritance patterns could help explain the range of symptoms in the disorder.

The team included researchers from Yale University, the University of Michigan, University of California Los Angeles, Emory University, Harvard University and others. The effort was funded by grants from the Simons Foundation and National Institutes of Health grant MH057881.


About the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

As one of the nation's leading academic centers for biomedical research, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine integrates advanced technology with basic science across a broad range of disciplines in a continuous quest to harness the power of new knowledge and improve the human condition. Driven mainly by the School of Medicine and its affiliates, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1997. In rankings recently released by the National Science Foundation, Pitt ranked fifth among all American universities in total federal science and engineering research and development support.

Likewise, the School of Medicine is equally committed to advancing the quality and strength of its medical and graduate education programs, for which it is recognized as an innovative leader, and to training highly skilled, compassionate clinicians and creative scientists well-equipped to engage in world-class research. The School of Medicine is the academic partner of UPMC, which has collaborated with the University to raise the standard of medical excellence in Pittsburgh and to position health care as a driving force behind the region's economy. For more information about the School of Medicine, see

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