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MU Researchers Work Toward Earlier Detection of Autism

Early detection and intervention is key for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Findings from a team of MU researcher may aid in earlier and more accurate detection of autism.

MU researchers have identified specific pairs of genes common in children on the autism spectrum. Using a computer program designed by MU College of Engineering researcher Chi-Ren Shyu, the team found 286 genes among children diagnosed with 12 different variations of autism.

Judith Miles is a genetic researcher at the MU Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders. She said being able to identify specific genes could make it easier for physicians to detect the disease earlier and identify the best treatment for symptoms associated with different variations of the disease.

Miles said diagnosing and prescribing treatment plans for autism can be difficult because of the wide variation of cases.

Currently, physicians look for physical and biological markers to diagnose. However, identifying genetic markers and similarities among children who have the same sets of gene pairs may make diagnoses more precise.

“When you are looking at autism, you are looking at such a variety of kids,” she said. “You want to be able to look at a group that is the same and say “OK, what treatment works for this subgroup?”

Researchers are utilizing complex computer modeling strategies to find these similarities in large data sets, such as the human genome.

Shyu received the grant that paid for the high-powered computer used to run his algorithm in 2014, but Miles said he approached the Thompson Center in the years before about ways big data could be used in autism research. Shyu’s team compared the genetic sequence of nearly 2,600 families who had one child with autism.

“The thing that makes this a ground-breaking study is that it is one of the first big data analysis studies looking at autism,” Miles said.

Even after identifying which genes are responsible for certain autism symptoms, Miles said there is a lot of work to do before physicians can apply genetic tests to their diagnoses. However, she also said the implications of the research could be applied not only to autism, but other genetic disease as well.

“This approach that is really exciting for autism, but also for other medical disorders,” she said.

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