By Robert Preidt
WEDNESDAY, April 15, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Sperm may hold clues about whether a man's children will be at increased risk for autism, a small study suggests.
Autism spectrum disorder is a group of developmental problems that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC estimates that one in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder. Many experts believe that autism is usually inherited, but there is no genetic test to assess autism risk, the Johns Hopkins University researchers said in a Hopkins news release.
"We wondered if we could learn what happens before someone [develops] autism," said Dr. Andrew Feinberg, a professor of molecular medicine at the Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Daniele Fallin, co-lead investigator on the study and director of Hopkins' Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, added that if genetic modifications are being passed from fathers to their children, it might be possible to see them in sperm.
The researchers analyzed DNA in the sperm of 44 fathers of children with early signs of an autism spectrum disorder. The focus was not on genes themselves, but on "epigenetic tags" that help regulate genes' activity.
The team identified 193 sites where the presence or absence of an epigenetic tag was related to autism. Many of the genes near these sites were involved in brain development.
Four of the 10 sites most strongly linked to autism were located near genes associated with Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes some of the same behavioral symptoms as autism, the study authors said.
In addition, several of the altered epigenetic patterns were found in the brains of people with autism, which supports the theory that they might be related to autism, the researchers pointed out.
The study was published online April 15 in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
The Hopkins team plans to pursue these preliminary findings with a study of more families and to examine the occupations and environmental exposures of the fathers.