New finding on autism's genetic trail

March 9, 2008 10:46:34 AM PDT
Carolina George can't help but smile, watching her kids Thomas and Lucy. But they haven't always gotten along.

Thomas, almost 5, is autistic.

"At 15 months on," George said, "he was nonverbal, no eye contact at all."

Autism can run in families, so researchers are closely watching both Thomas and Lucy as part of a siblings

Pat Levitt and Dan Campbell of Vanderbilt University have tied a gene mutation called MET to autism. In fact, it doubles the risk of this disorder, by controlling the production of other genes in the brain.

, Ph.D.\Vanderbilt University\\\\\\\\] "This variation that is associated with autism essentially turns down the amount of this gene that is made," Pat Levitt, a Ph.D. with Vanderbilt University said.

Analyzing more than 800 families, Levitt's group found the MET gene variation also regulates protein production governing cell development. The team is also studying environmental factors that might trigger autism.

"we're determining whether having this variant will increase for having a bad response to exposure to a particular toxin," Levitt said.

Wendy Stone, with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, added, "The gene that he found relates to a lot of different aspects of autism and that is what makes it really exciting."

Stone says that slowly the factors contributing to autism are emerging.