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UCSD Researchers Discover New Genetic Link To Autism

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Aired 9/15/10

Researchers at UCSD have found a genetic link to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Understanding genetic factors advances understanding of the complex causes of certain types of autism.

— Researchers at U.C. San Diego have found a genetic link to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Lead researcher Palmer Taylor, Ph.D is the associate vice chancellor for Health Sciences at UCSD.

Taylor says the gene mutation involves a protein called neuroligin-3, which appears to prevent normal communication between the nerves. He explains that this malfunctioning nerve protein is a factor in the development of autism in a small fraction of people with the disorder.

“What we inherit genetically may make us more vulnerable to the possibilities of having the autism spectrum disorders,” said Taylor. However, the scientist cautions that Autism Spectrum Disorder is not just a single disease, and says it is likely there are other factors involved.

“Genetics alone isn’t going to precipitate the cause,” Taylor said. “But rather, there may be environmental or external factors that come into play.”

Those environmental and external factors are identified in his report published in the September 10 issue of the Journal of Biology Chemistry.

Both neuroligins and autism mutations are relatively new to science. Protein neuroligins were identified 15 years ago; autism gene mutations were discovered just seven years ago.

Taylor said identifying a genetic link advances understanding of the complex causes of certain types of autism.

He says his next steps are to see how genes may influence vulnerability to environmental factors in relationship to autism, then perhaps offer a new target drug that makes the protein behave properly.

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