Although much remains unknown about the causes and possible treatments for autism, Duke genetics researchers believe they have found a clue to better understanding the disease.
By observing a region of the genome that regulates the production of the hormone oxytocin in people with autism, they noted higher-than-usual numbers of gene-regulating molecules called methyl groups, a condition known as methylation.
Methylation makes a person less able to feel the effects of oxytocin, which has been shown to aid social interaction in humans and is tied to levels of trust and the ability to read social cues. Previous studies have shown that treatment with oxytocin can improve an autistic person's social behavior, and researchers are exploring its potential use as a treatment for the disorder.
Simon Gregory, assistant professor of medicine, says the findings will potentially provide information about which individuals will respond better to that kind of treatment. Although he cautions that the methylation status of the gene is not a definitive diagnosis of autism by itself, a test for methylation might be used along with other clinical tests for diagnosing autism.