When and Where Ancestors Lived May Increase Autism Risk

January 23, 2023

Environmental Exposures to Pollutants Could Produce Disruptive Effects on Genetic Information Passed From Prior Generations

Health scientists from the University of Utah recently utilized a unique combination of geographic and population data to study Utah families. They concluded that when and where parents and grandparents were born and raised could contribute to an increased risk of autism among their offspring. The scientists used the Utah Registry of Autism and Developmental Disabilities and the Utah Population Database to identify parents and grandparents of children born between 1989 and 2014 who have autism. They pinpointed where 7900 parents and 31,600 grandparents were born and raised. The researchers then discovered 20 key clusters dispersed throughout the state. After analyzing this data further, they found that 13 of the 20 clusters–nine among grandparents and four among parents–were linked to an increased risk of autism in their children and grandchildren. Notably, descendants of paternal grandparents that lived in these clusters were around three times more likely to have autism than expected. Principal investigator Rebecca Richards-Steed explains more about this association and states, “What we were seeing fits in with current scientific understanding of how paternal genetics is key to evolutionary change and adaptation. So, it is quite possible in the case of autism that a signal, shaped in part by environmental experiences, is coming from the paternal lineage, which is being passed down through the family.” Interestingly, seven clusters in rural areas were identified as having a low risk of association between autism and family lineage. The University of Utah researchers suggest that parents and grandparents who lived in urban areas may have had different and more detrimental environmental exposures or experiences. Richards-Steed concludes with a warning and says, “What we can say, based on our findings, is what we are being exposed to now is probably not just affecting us or even our children but maybe even our children’s children.”

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