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Neurotoxicology. 2006 Sep;27(5):671-84. Epub 2006 Mar 28.

Autism and environmental genomics.

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Pediatric Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, USA.


Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are defined by behavior and diagnosed by clinical history and observation but have no biomarkers and are presumably, etiologically and biologically heterogeneous. Given brain abnormalities and high monozygotic concordance, ASDs have been framed as neurobiologically based and highly genetic, which has shaped the research agenda and in particular criteria for choosing candidate ASD genes. Genetic studies to date have not uncovered genes of strong effect, but a move toward "genetic complexity" at the neurobiological level may not suffice, as evidence of systemic abnormalities (e.g. gastrointestinal and immune), increasing rates and less than 100% monozygotic concordance support a more inclusive reframing of autism as a multisystem disorder with genetic influence and environmental contributors. We review this evidence and also use a bioinformatic approach to explore the possibility that "environmentally responsive genes" not specifically associated with the nervous system, but potentially associated with systemic changes in autism, have not hitherto received sufficient attention in autism genetics investigations. We overlapped genes from NIEHS Environmental Genome Project, the Comparative Toxicogenomics Database, and the SeattleSNPs database of genes relevant to the human immune and inflammatory response with linkage regions identified in published autism genome scans. We identified 135 genes in overlap regions, of which 56 had never previously been studied in relation to autism and 47 had functional SNPs (in coding regions). Both our review and the bioinformatics exercise support the expansion of criteria for evaluating the relevance of genes to autism risk to include genes related to systemic impact and environmental responsiveness. This review also suggests the utility of environmental genomic resources in highlighting the potential relevance of particular genes within linkage regions. Environmental responsiveness and systems impacts consistent with system-wide findings in autism are thus supported as important considerations in identifying the numerous and complex modes of gene-environment interaction in autism.

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