Pioneering Welsh study: faulty 'biological clock' genes could cause autism|
BANGOR, Wales: Scientists in Wales have discovered that faults in genes which affect sleep, memory and timing could cause autism in children.
The Welsh team who examined 110 sets of parents and their autistic children say anomalies in two of these "biological clock" genes may be linked with the disorder.
The genes, called per1 and npas2, had already been identified as regulating complex emotional memory, communicative timing and sleep patterns in the mouse and the fruit fly - organisms used by scientists to study the role of clock genes.
The researchers, whose findings have been published online by the journal, Molecular Psychiatry, say problems in sleep, memory and timing are all characteristic of autism and each could play an important role in its development.
The lead researcher, Dr Dawn Wimpory, of the North West Wales NHS Trust and Bangor University, said: "Autism is a disorder of complex inheritance where several interacting genes may be involved. This is the first autism study to identify interacting genes. It is also the first to identify genes that regulate behaviour recognised as affected in autism - timing and memory. It adds further evidence for the role of the biological clock in autism."
Autism is characterised by impairment in communication, social interaction and the ability to think and behave flexibly.
Dr Wimpory believes a deficiency in social timing contributes greatly to the difficulties faced by people with autistic disorder.
She said: "Timing is quintessential to normal infant development. In autistic disorder, malfunction of adaptive timing may lead to a cascade of other developmental problems. In the first few months, an unaffected infant can take part in social exchanges, sharing eye contact and babbling in what we'd recognise as 'natural' communication patterns. This facility for pre-verbal communication appears lacking or diminished in autistic disorder."
It is through such pre-verbal communication that an unaffected infant anticipates and predicts others' behaviour progressing to increasingly sophisticated social participation such as in teasing exchanges.
Mutually enjoyable pre-verbal teasing games like "peep-bo!" are timing-dependent. They appear as an early stage in the development of empathy and social pretence.
Dr Wimpory said that empathy and pretending were among the life-long problems for individuals with autism and these could be developmentally linked to early difficulties in synchronising with the in-built rhythms of communication including eye-contact.
She collaborated with Bangor University colleagues in both the School of Psychology and the North West Cancer Research Fund Institute, along with Professor Michael Owen's team from Cardiff University's department of psychological medicine.
(Source: Life Style Extra, March 7, 2007)