Skip to content

    Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

    Font Size
    A
    A
    A

    New Autism Gene Doubles Risk

    Finding Suggests Autism Is Disease of Brain and Body
    By
    WebMD Health News
    Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

    Oct. 16, 2006 -- A single gene mutation doubles a child's susceptibility to autism, a Vanderbilt-led research team reports.

    It's a discovery with far-reaching implications. Why? It isn't specifically a brain gene. In fact, it affects multiple systems in the body, including immune function and gut repair. The gene in question is a variant form of a gene called MET.

    This suggests that the complex set of behaviors and mental disabilities we call autism may not, as previously thought, be solely a problem with brain development. It may also be linked to subtle developmental problems throughout the body.

    The study, which included Pat Levitt, PhD, of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, appears in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    "We hypothesize that the common, functionally disruptive [MET gene variant] can, together with other vulnerability genes and [genetic] and environmental factors, precipitate the onset of autism," Levitt and colleagues suggest.

    New Autism Gene Important

    Kids with autism usually seem normal at first. Then they seem to backslide, losing abilities they once had and suddenly withdrawing into their own world.

    There are many theories about why this happens. Clearly, something goes wrong with normal development.

    The MET gene, Levitt and colleagues note, encodes an important enzyme called the MET receptor. Among other things, the MET receptor sends out signals important for brain growth, brain maturation, immune function, and gut repair.

    Many parents of children with autism report that their kids have digestive problems and haywire immune responses. It's never been clear whether this is directly or indirectly linked to their autism.

    Linking the MET gene to autism opens the door to exciting new research, notes Matthew W. State, MD, PhD, director of the neurogenetics program at Yale University. State's editorial accompanies the Levitt team's report.

    "The possibility that a MET variant might lead to immune dysfunction and gastrointestinal disturbance along with autism-spectrum disorders is an important question to pursue and one that will likely lead to some debate," State writes.

    That's because the first theory to link autism, gut problems, and immune dysfunction blamed these symptoms on childhood immunization with the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine.

    Today on WebMD

    girl at window
    Symptoms within the first 2 years of a child’s life.
    boy playing a violin
    Where do they fall on the spectrum?
     
    Mother and daughter indoors playing
    Play therapy may undo the disorder in at-risk babies.
    preschool age girl sitting at desk
    What causes this rare condition?
     
    High Functioning Autism And Asperge Syndrome
    Article
    Gluten Free Diet Slideshow
    Article
     
    Mother and daughter indoors playing
    Article
    man on bicycle
    VIDEO
     
    girl at window
    Article
    Mother hugging teenage son
    Article
     
    Understanding Rett Syndrome
    Article
    Home Care Tips
    Article
     

    WebMD Special Sections