Genetic basis of autism: is there a way forward?

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Abstract

Purpose of review

This paper outlines some of the key findings from genetic research carried out in the last 12–18 months, which indicate that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex disorder involving interactions between genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors.

Recent findings

The current literature highlights the presence of genetic and phenotypic heterogeneity in ASD with a number of underlying pathogenetic mechanisms. In this regard, there are at least three phenotypic presentations with distinct genetic underpinnings: autism plus phenotype characterized by syndromic ASD caused by rare, single-gene disorders; broad autism phenotype caused by genetic variations in single or multiple genes, each of these variations being common and distributed continually in the general population, but resulting in varying clinical phenotypes when it reaches a certain threshold through complex gene–gene and gene–environment interactions; and severe and specific phenotype caused by ‘de-novo’ mutations in the patient or transmitted through asymptomatic carriers of such mutation.

Summary

Understanding the neurobiological processes by which genotypes become phenotypes, along with the advances in developmental neuroscience and neuronal networks at the cellular and molecular level, is paving the way for translational research involving targeted interventions of affected molecular pathways and early intervention programs that promote normal brain responses to stimuli and alter the developmental trajectory.

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