Autism is a complex, behaviorally defined, static disorder of the immature brain that is a great concern to the practicing pediatrician because of an astonishing 56% reported increase in pediatric prevalence between 1991 and 1997, to a prevalence higher than that of spina bifida, cancer, or Down Syndrome. This jump is probably attributable to heightened awareness and changing diagnostic criteria rather than to new environmental influences.
Autism is not a disease but a syndrome with multiple non-genetic and genetic causes. By autism (the autistic spectrum disorders [ASDs]), we mean the wide spectrum of developmental disorders characterized by impairments in 3 behavioral domains: 1) social interaction; 2) language, communication, and imaginative play; and 3) range of interests and activities. Autism corresponds in this article to pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition and International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision.
Except for Rett Syndrome —- attributable in most affected individuals to mutations of the methyl-CpG-binding protein 2 (MeCP2) gene —- the other PDD subtypes (autistic disorder, Asperger disorder, disintegrative disorder, and PDD Not Otherwise Specified [PDD-NOS]) are not linked to any particular genetic or non-genetic cause. Review of 2 major textbooks on autism and of papers published between 1961 and 2003 yields convincing evidence for multiple interacting genetic factors as the main causative determinants of autism.
Epidemiologic studies indicate that environmental factors such as toxic exposures, teratogens, perinatal insults, and prenatal infections such as rubella and cytomegalovirus account for few cases. These studies fail to confirm that immunizations with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine are responsible for the surge in autism. Epilepsy, the medical condition most highly associated with autism, has equally complex genetic/non-genetic (but mostly unknown) causes. Autism is frequent in tuberous sclerosis complex and fragile X syndrome, but these 2 disordrs account for but a small minority of cases. Currently, diagnosable medical conditions, cytogenetic abnormalities, and single-gene defects (i.e. tuberous sclerosis complex, fragile X syndrome, and other rare diseases) together account for <10% of cases. There is convincing evidence that “idiopathic” autism is a heritable disorder.
Epidemiologic studies report an ASD prevalence of approximately 3 to 6/1000, with a male to female ratio of 3:1. This skewed ratio remains unexplained: despite the contribution of a few well characterized X-linked disorders, male-to-male transmission in a number of families rules out X-linkage as the prevailing mode of inheritance. The recurrence rate in siblings of affected children is approximately 2% to 8%, much higher than the prevalence rate in the general population but much lower than in single-gene diseases.
Twin studies reported 60% concordance for classic autism in monozygotic (MZ) twins versus 0 in dizygotic (DZ) twins, the higher MZ concordance attesting to genetic inheritance as the predominant causative agent. Reevaluation for a broader autistic phenotype that included communication and social disorders increased concordance remarkably from 60% to 92% in MZ twins and from 0% to 10% in DZ pairs. This suggests that interactions between multiple genes cause “idiopathic” autism but that epigenetic factors and exposure to environmental modifiers may contribute to variable expression of autism-related traits. The identity and number of genes involved remain unknown. The wide phenotypic variability of the ASDs likely reflects the interaction of multiple genes within an individual’s genome and the existence of distinct genes and gene combinations among those affected.
There are 3 main approaches to identifying genetic loci, chromosomal regions likely to contain relevant genes: 1) whole genome screens, searching for linkage of autism to shared genetic markers in populations of multiplex families (families with >1 affected family member); 2) cytogenetic studies that may guide molecular studies by pointing to relevant inherited or de novo chromosomal abnormalities in affected individuals and their families; and 3) evaluation of candidate genes known to affect brain development in these significantly linked regions or, alternatively, linkage of candidate genes selected a priori because of their presumptive contribution to the pathogenesis of autism.
Data from whole-genome screens n multiplex families suggest interactions of at least 10 genes in the causation of autism. Thus far, a putative speech and language region at 7q31-q33 seems most strongly linked to autism, with linkages to multiple other loci under investigation. Cytogenetic abnormalities at the 15q11-q13 locus are fairly frequent in people with autism, and a “chromosome 15 phenotype” was described in individuals with chromosome 15 duplications. Among other candidate genes are the FOXP2, RAY1/ST7, IMMP2L, and RELN genes at 7q22-q33 and the GABA(A) receptor subunit and UBE3A genes on chromosome 15q11-q13. Variant alleles of the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTT) on 17q11-q12 are more frequent in individuals with autism than in non-autistic populations. In addition, animal models and linkage data from genome screens implicate the oxytocin receptor at 3p25-p26.
Most pediatricians will have 1 or more children with this disorder in their practices. They must diagnose ASD expeditiously because early intervention increases its effectiveness. Children with dysmorphic features, congenital anomalies, mental retardation, or family members with developmental disorders are those most likely to benefit from extensive medical testing and genetic consultation. The yield of testing is much less in high-functioning children with a normal appearance and IQ and moderate social and language impairments. Genetic counseling justifies testing, but until autism genes are identified and their functions are understood, prenatal diagnosis will exist only for the rare cases ascribable to single-gene defects or overt chromosomal abnormalities.
Parents who wish to have more children must be told of their increased statistical risk. It is crucial for pediatricians to try to involve families with multiple affected members in formal research projects, as family studies are key to unraveling the causes and pathogenesis of autism. Parents need to understand that they and their affected children are the only available sources for identifying and studying the elusive genes responsible for autism. Future clinically useful insights and potential medications depend on identifying these genes and elucidating the influences of their products on brain development and physiology.