Quantifying and modeling birth order effects in autism.
Center for Complex Disease Genomics, McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America.
Autism is a complex genetic disorder with multiple etiologies whose molecular genetic basis is not fully understood. Although a number of rare mutations and dosage abnormalities are specific to autism, these explain no more than 10% of all cases. The high heritability of autism and low recurrence risk suggests multifactorial inheritance from numerous loci but other factors also intervene to modulate risk. In this study, we examine the effect of birth rank on disease risk which is not expected for purely hereditary genetic models.We analyzed the data from three publicly available autism family collections in the USA for potential birth order effects and studied the statistical properties of three tests to show that adequate power to detect these effects exist. We detect statistically significant, yet varying, patterns of birth order effects across these collections. In multiplex families, we identify V-shaped effects where middle births are at high risk; in simplex families, we demonstrate linear effects where risk increases with each additional birth. Moreover, the birth order effect is gender-dependent in the simplex collection. It is currently unknown whether these patterns arise from ascertainment biases or biological factors. Nevertheless, further investigation of parental age-dependent risks yields patterns similar to those observed and could potentially explain part of the increased risk. A search for genes considering these patterns is likely to increase statistical power and uncover novel molecular etiologies.
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