Gene identified that gives insight into autism spectrum disorders


A phenomenon called "receptive joint attention" - following someone's gaze or finger point - is known to be compromised in some mental disorders such as autism (ASD). A new study has identified a gene that plays a significant role in the biological background for receptive joint attention and could give insight into some of the genetic foundations for ASD.

Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University studied the genetic makeup of chimpanzees and compared them to behavioral activities for the chimps, and found that receptive joint attention is significantly heritable. The gene, known as the vasopressin receptor gene, is a part of the genetic makeup for social bonding.

Poor joint attention ability may be a core feature in children with or at risk of developing autism spectrum disorder. Researchers Larry Young, PhD, and Bill Hopkins, PhD, co-authored the study and lead a collaborative team of researchers from Yerkers, CTSN, the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to determine the extent to which the gene plays a role in chimpanzees' joint attention.

"We used chimpanzees in this behavioral study because their receptive joint attention abilities are well documented and their closeness to humans makes the study results the most likely to be generalizable to humans," said Hopkins in a release.

The study builds on previous work by the authors into the vasopression receptor gene. The vasopression gene is most prevalent in males and has less impact on female socialization, the study also found.

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