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Autism Twin Study Finds Environmental Role Possibly as Strong as Genetics

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The largest study conducted of twins revealed the environment may play a larger role in the development of autism than previously predicted. Over the past thirty years, numerous smaller studies showed it is more common for identical twins to be diagnosed with autism than fraternal twins. However, the recent study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, found autism is also common in fraternal twins even though they do not share as many genes as identical twins, reported WebMD.

Prior research led researchers to believe developing autism was “writing into a person’s DNA” and that the environment only contributed a small percentage. Nonetheless, these results suggest that something in the twins’ “mutual life circumstances” may play a large role, perhaps a role as strong as genetics.

Researchers analyzed data from a California registry of children who received services for developmental disabilities, reported WebMD. They identified 192 sets of twins where at least one child was diagnosed with autism, or other autism spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome.

The study included 52 pairs of identical twins and 138 pairs of fraternal twins. The researchers compared the number of identical and fraternal twins diagnosed with autism allowing them to determine how autism rates differed when the only dissimilar variable was the number of shared genes.

The results revealed identical twins are more likely to share an autism diagnosis than fraternal twins, says WebMD. This result was expected, but it was also shown that both fraternal twins were diagnosed with the disorder more frequently, which supported the assumption that environmental factors played a larger role than expected.

Based on the data, researchers concluded the environment may account for roughly 58 percent of the risk for autism spectrum disorders while genetics accounted for 38 percent.

Researchers were shocked at the results.

“It was a surprise, definitely,” said study researcher Dr. Joachim Hallmayer, an associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford University in California.

He concluded that certain shared environmental factors play a strong role in developing autism, and noted the importance of factors during early childhood which affect a child’s development.

Other experts not involved in the reported study noted that the ranges used to compute the averages were extremely large. For instance, the range of autism by environmental factors was between nine percent and 81 percent, while genetics ranged from eight percent to 84 percent, reported WebMD.

Currently there are four studies on the issue, two in the U.S. and two in Europe which also demonstrate genetics plays a lesser role in autism than once believed.

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