The government keeps warning us about an upcoming epidemic of bird flu?which may or may not be a problem?but it doesn’t mention the current epidemic of autism, which researchers now know is caused by a genetic susceptibility to heavy metal pollution. Like detectives trying to solve a murder case, researchers searching for the biological cause of autism have come up with some surprising suspects. They’ve found that different genes may be responsible for causing autism in boys than in girls.

Since autism is a newly-identified condition, scientists knew it must have to do with something in the modern world. Now they are trying to close in on exactly HOW a genetic predisposition can lead to it. Researcher Gerard Schellenberg says, “It is highly unlikely that there is only one gene responsible for autism. There may be four to six major genes and 20 to 30 others that might contribute to autism to a lesser degree. If an individual only gets three high-risk variants of these genes, it could mean a less-severe form of autism. And because autism is rarer in females, it may take more risk genes for a female to have autism. There also is the possibility that there might be a biological difference in autism for females versus males.” The condition effects many more boys than girls.

Psychologist Geraldine Dawson says, “What is meaningful is that we have found evidence for two genetic subtypes of autism, male versus female and early versus late onset.” Researchers scanned the DNA of 169 families that had at least two siblings who met the strict criteria for autism. They also scanned the DNA of another 54 families that also included members who had less severe forms of autism, such as Asperger syndrome.

“We have been working almost 10 years to get to this point,” says Schellenberg. “If we can find and confirm that a particular gene is involved in autism the field will explode. We have to find a gene so that molecular biology can be defined and we can understand what’s inside autism. Until that happens, we are dancing on the outside.”

Dawson says, “Once we discover these susceptibility genes, we can immediately screen infants to identify those at risk early in life. Early identification can lead to early intervention, which could have a much more dramatic effect?Once you understand the biology you can develop a prevention strategy including medical approaches. Genetic research is a good strategy for eventually designing effective medical treatments for autism.”

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