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Imaging Genetics at IMFAR

Guest Blogger: Ashley A. Scott-Van Zeeland, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow at Scripps Genomic Medicine, Scripps Translational Science Institute. Dr. Scott-Van Zeeland was just awarded the INSAR prize for the best research dissertation in autism at IMFAR on Thursday evening. 

 An introduction to the cutting-edge field of neuro-imaging genetics kicked off the Invited Educational Symposium series for IMFAR 2010. Moderated by Dr. Lea Davis, attendees were treated to three presentations describing how the combination of neuroimaging and genetics could be leveraged to gain insight into autism.

 The basic tenant of imaging genetics is that brain function and structure are a step closer to the gene ‘action’, and can better reveal associations between specific brain processes and genes. This is in contrast to traditional genetics studies in which a categorical classification of “Autism” versus “Control” is typically used. Neuroimaging presents a unique opportunity to look at the living brain and search for genes that influence patterns of brain function or structure. Importantly, measures of brain structure tend to be stable over time and highly heritable (similar between family members), making these measures appropriate for genetic studies.

 Dr. Judith Piggot, an Assistant Professor from UCLA, presented the first talk of the session. In addition to introducing the audience to the concept of imaging genetics, she described some of the hurdles that imaging genetics in autism, in particular, must address. Dr. Piggot noted that although autism is one of the most genetic of complex neurodevelopmental disorders, the search for the causative genes has been hampered by the large amount of heterogeneity, or unique causes and presentations of autism. One way imaging genetics can move the field forward is to use brain imaging to identify more similar patient groups in which the genetic study can be performed. For example, a researcher could first identify a group of individuals who share abnormal brain activity during a face-processing task, and then use this brain imaging-based outcome to search for associated genes. Additional hurdles include difficulties in collecting the brain imaging and blood samples necessary to do this work, as well as issues related to statistical analysis.

 Next, Dr. Joseph Callicott, Chief of the Unit on Dynamic Imaging Genetics (UDIG) within the Clinical Brain Disorders Branch of the NIMH, described imaging genetics approaches that have been utilized in the study of schizophrenia, highlighting how the autism community can avoid some of the pitfalls that were encountered in the very early days of this state-of-the art technique. Dr. Callicott’s group looks not only at individuals affected with schizophrenia and healthy controls, but also includes unaffected siblings of the patient. Siblings share 50% of their genetic makeup, likely including some of the genes that predispose to the disorder, yet remain unaffected. Utilizing this information can help pinpoint which genes contribute to shared features of brain function and provide greater insight into how multiple genes contribute to “building a brain that is vulnerable to illness.”  He also presented results from previous imaging genetics studies that found certain genes have a broad and generalized effect on brain function, whereas others show effects limited to certain cognitive functions and brain regions. Results like these fulfill the greatest promise for the application of imaging genetics studies to autism, because they have significant impacts for drug targets and should be considered during drug development.

Dr. Thomas Wassink from the University of Iowa concluded the session, presenting recent work his group has done on the serotonin pathway and brain function in children with autism and children with Fragile X (FraX), a related disorder. Between 1-3% of children identified with an autism spectrum disorder are also found to have the FraX mutation, and there is significant overlap in clinical and related features of the two disorders. Both FraX and autism show increased grey matter (cell bodies) and white matter (connections between cells) compared to typical populations. Dr. Wassink’s studies focused on two genes involved in serotonin levels in the brain, the serotonin transporter (SERT) and an enzyme that inactivates serotonin, monoamine oxidase A (MAOA). One of the most dramatic findings presented was that the low activity version of MAOA translated to a roughly 4% increase in grey matter volume in both FraX and autism (Davis, L.K., et al. 2009). This links the serotonin pathway to the shared feature of enlarged brain volume in both autism and FraX.

 A consistent and important message to researchers was conveyed during this educational seminar: Although there may be some unique practical difficulties associated with both neuroimaging and genetics, neuroimaging laboratories should strive to collect DNA samples from every participant to fulfill the promise of imaging genetics to identify the effects of candidate genes in the brain and potentially impact drug development.

 To read complete coverage from IMFAR, please visit http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science_news/imfar_2010.php

Categories: Science Tags: , ,
  1. Katie Wright
    May 21, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    As a parent of a child suffering now with autism, I fail to see how this is relevant to either helping my son or explaining the trajectory of his disease.

    What caused the inflammation in my son’s brain and body? That is what I want to know. He was not born with a dysfunctional brain, like FX children are. His head became bigger w/ the onset of his acute autism, facilitated by a series of post vaccination fevers. What can be developed to reverse this inflammation?

    Why not study discuss that at IMFAR?

  2. jen
    May 23, 2010 at 9:30 am

    I would like to see a study of how many women took benadryl during pregnancy who has a child with autism. In Microbiology I learned of the harm of taking this which everyone says is safe, (excluding the life-threatening)when you don’t absolutely need to. It has something to do with the immune response. I just wonder because of the allergies or allergic reactions they have. Did I take too much and weakened my child’s immune response? I remember taking it to get sleep as prescribed by my doctor. I would like to see more info on this.

  3. Dadvocate
    May 23, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I have to agree with Katie on this one. I’m at a bit of a loss reconciling stuff like fancy face recognition studies and an apparent broad brush view of autism rather than “autisms” by the imaging folks. I want to make sure my research $ aren’t just going to an existing imaging researcher who slaps “autism” on a grant proposal.

    O Dr. Scott-Van Zeeland, I met Sir Dennis Weatherstone many years ago and immediately grasped that, above all, he was someone who understood the importance of looking at the big picture, examining the facts in front of you, and not getting seduced by technology or minutae.

    Regarding financial derivatives, that after his time set off an arms race that put the world economy in a tailspin, Sir Dennis said, “I first ask the derivative structurer how it works. If I don’t understand it, I ask again. If I still don’t understand it, I conclude that THEY don’t understand it. Derivatives are useful as an instrument to transparently transfer risk from those who don’t want it to those who do.” (Oh, if only he were still around!)

    I think it’s somewhat similar with autism research. Technology and genomics can be valuable, but technology for technology’s sake is seductive and requires enormous financial support. It shouldn’t take precedence over aggressive pursuit of the biomedical clues (like inflammation and GI disorders) that are staring us in the face.

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