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Autism: Return to the father theory

Apr 15, 2015 02:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
Experts (and health journalists) have been riding the autism cause roller coaster for years. Some people can’t even agree on what autism is or exactly where the symptoms land on the “autism disorder spectrum.”

Genetics and environmental factors have been in the bull’s eye most often, however. But which genes, what factors?

Johns Hopkins scientists are the latest to enter the discussion. In a small study published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology, Hopkins researchers found that DNA from the sperm of men whose children had early signs of autism show distinct patterns of regulatory tags that could contribute to the condition. In this study, investigators looked for possible causes for the condition not in genes themselves, but in the “epigenetic tags” that help regulate genes’ activity.

“We wondered if we could learn what happens before someone gets autism,” says Andrews Feinberg, M.D., M.P.H, the King Fahd Professor of Molecular Medicine and director of the Centers for Epigenetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “If epigenetic changes are being passed from fathers to their children, we should be able to detect them in sperm,” adds co-lead investigator Daniele Fallin, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Mental Health in the Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

The team plans to confirm the results in a study of more families and to look at the occupations and environmental exposures of the dads involved. There is currently no genetic or epigenetic test available to assess autism risk.

--Sarah Hagerty
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