Health Team

Largest-ever autism study searches for genetic link

Posted May 4, 2016 12:59 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2016 7:03 p.m. EDT

It's a common diagnosis, yet doctors are still learning how to best treat children diagnosed with autism.

A new national research project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill could help doctors better understand the cause and effects of autism, which could lead to more targeted treatments. The study is the largest genetic research effort ever in the United States.

For 11-year-old Davis Barger, teaching himself the piano or learning computer code language came easy.

"He's torn through astronomy and astrophysics already," said Noah Barger, Davis' father.

At 2 years old, Davis' parents noticed he wasn't as verbal as his peers. A year later, he was diagnosed with autism and immediately got help through special programs at UNC.

"So, he's worked really hard, and we've worked really hard to help him," said Ivy Barger, Davis' mother.

Now, the Bargers will be part of SPARK, a new genetic study that aims to involve 50,000 families across the country.

"In the five or 10 years we've discovered about 50 genes that are involved in autism," said UNC Department of Psychiatry professor Gabriel Dichter. "But we know that there are hundreds more left to be discovered."

Processing the volume of genetic data can now be done faster and at a lower cost due to increased computing power at centers like the one at UNC.

Researchers expect to find clusters of genes and certain molecular pathways involved in expressing autism symptoms.

"That (research) will make it possible for us to develop therapies that specifically turn up or down the levels of activity within these pathways," said UNC Neuroscience's Dr. Mark Zylka,

The Bargers aren't involved in the study just for their son's sake—he's thriving with special educational approaches. They hope the study's results will help other families yet to deal with a diagnosis of autism in their children.

"I suspect that there's a genetic component to autism, and I'm really excited that they're looking into it," Ivy barger said.

SPARK involves 21 different research organizations across the country, including UNC. The university's resources are valuable because they are nationally known for their work in autism research, developing innovative treatments and interventions.

UNC also has a large number of families that have participated in previous studies and will be invited back.

Registration for the study can be done online, filling out information about the child and getting a saliva kit to mail back a sample.