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“Genes Have Key Role in Autism”

April 29, 2009

The BBC has the story finding that “scientist have produced the most compelling evidence to date that genetics play a key role in autism”.

In the latest studies researchers scanned the human genome for small differences between people who have an ASD, and those who do not.

The largest study, led by the University of Pennsylvania, focused on more than 10,000 people.

It found several genetic variants commonly associated with ASD, all of them pointing two specific genes found on chromosome 5 which control production of proteins which help cells stick to each other, and make nervous connections.

One variant, linked to a gene called CDH10, was so common – present in over 65% of cases of autism – that the researchers calculated that fixing it would cut the number of autism cases by 15%.

Autism is a terrible and profound disease whose growth among the population in recent years is rightly causing concern for parents and physicians. But the disease has also been the subject of controversial, and potentially dangerous, claims about its cause. Vaccines, for one, are blamed. Actor Jim Carey, whose girlfriend has (or had) an autistic son, wrote an impassioned defense of the vaccine-as-cause-of-autism claim in the Huffington Post. In it, he continues to argue that the vaccines can’t be ruled out as a cause for the disease, despite a recent court ruling finding the the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) shot was not the cause of the autism in the plaintiffs before that court. While it’s true that the findings in one court by one judge are not dispositive of all cases, his argument–that until there are studies demonstrating that the interaction effect of all 36 vaccines isn’t the cause, then vaccines must be considered to be a cause–is simply illogical: only when a scientific connection between autism and vaccines is established will his claim have merit. And, if the article in the BBC is any indication, genes, not vaccines, are the cause.

It’s extraordinarily easy to be sympathetic to the parents struggling to find an explanation for a disease which takes their bright and playful children away from them and into autism’s world of non-responsive emotional distance. The disease is particularly cruel in that way. But sympathy for these parents–and the other defenders of the autism/vaccine connection– while understandable, isn’t supported by science. Most importantly, supporters of this theory who refuse to vaccinate their children are putting millions of other children and parents at risk of renewed outbreaks of proven fatal diseases. Smallpox, now feared as a tool of bio-terrorism, is a formerly common childhood disease wiped out by vaccinations. Measles, mumps, rubella…all are less terrifying but still dangerous. The findings of the scientists highlighted in the BBC article, then, are important in that they may go some way to answering the questions about the cause of autism. And finally learning the cause may help to minimize the danger of the disease, as well as the understandable but potentially harmful refusal to vaccinate for it.

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