Autism spectrum disorder is widely regarded as one of the most severe childhood psychiatric conditions. The root causes of this disorder have generally been viewed as either genetic or environmental. The interaction between genetic and environmental factors has not been investigated widely, however, despite the fact that synergistic effects have been found for other neurodevelopmental disorders such as depression.
Donald Pfaff and his colleagues at The Rockefeller University in New York plan to use a mouse model of autism to investigate genetic susceptibility to the disorder in the context of a known environmental predisposing condition: prenatal stress. The researchers also plan to investigate whether these factors affect the sexes differentially. This may shed light on why autism affects more boys than girls — a well-known but understudied aspect of the disorder.
The study is designed to compare the effects of prenatal stress on control mice and mice that are genetically susceptible to developing autism. When the mice reach puberty, the researchers plan to analyze them for behaviors typical of autism spectrum disorder. They also aim to assess certain areas of the brain to determine the relationship between autism traits and chemical changes to the genetic code. Studying these chemical modifications, known as epigenetics, can elucidate the underlying mechanisms of how genetic and environmental factors and their interaction cause autism-like behaviors to arise.
This work could lead to a better understanding of the etiology of autism, which may bring important insights for the prevention of the disorder. Furthermore, understanding the sex-specific interaction between genes and the environment underlying autism-like behaviors may improve our understanding of the neurobiology of the condition.