A family affair? Autism’s potentially familial traits

Science Daily reports that autism is “highly heritable,” but it is also true that many individuals with autism are born into families that do not show any hallmarks of the disorder; there is mounting evidence that autism may be environmental as well as genetic.  Nonetheless, autism has “considerable genetic and phenotypic heterogeneity” (Science Daily). Most significantly for Brainjogging, “common impairments include deficits in saccades, or rapid eye movements that shift between objects in the field of vision, and smooth-pursuit eye movements, in which the gaze is stabilized on a slowly moving object” (Science Daily).

Abnormal eye movements and other sensorimotor and neurobehavioral impairments appear common in unaffected family members of individuals with autism, according to a report in the August issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

After studying eye movement testing and other assessments of neurobehavioral function in 57 first-degree relatives of individuals with autism, Matthew W. Mosconi, Ph.D., and other colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that “family members of individuals with autism tended to perform more slowly and less accurately on eye movement tasks, including those assessing saccades and smooth-pursuit eye movements” (Science Daily).  These findings suggest that “these alterations within sensorimotor and cognitive brain circuitry may be familial traits” (Science Daily).

Dr. Mosconi’s study revealed that the aforementioned abnormalities

were associated with several brain pathways – including the cerebellar, frontotemporal, striatal and prefrontal circuits – that have been liked to autism, some of which are important for language skills, motor control and executive function, or the control and regulation of behavior. Science Daily.

These findings suggest that many hallmarks of autism are familial traits, to an extent.  Further research must be conducted to determine the degree to which the genetic traits of autism can be manipulated, but Dr. Mosconi has provided the scientific and autistic communities with significant research.  From here, scientists must investigate what leads to autism in some individuals and mere sensorimotor and cognitive brain circuitry impairments in others.

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