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Stanford/Packard Autism Researchers Seek Twins For Brain-Imaging Study


STANFORD, Calif.
-- Autism researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine are recruiting twins for an investigation of the role of genetics in shaping the autistic brain.

“We’re doing a twin study to try to sort the impact of genetics on brain abnormalities in autism from the impact of the environment,” said lead scientist Antonio Hardan, MD, who is a child psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. Hardan’s team will use magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of 120 pairs of twins, some with autism and some without, to look for gene-brain associations.

Previous research has indicated about 75 to 80 percent of autism is explained by genetics, Hardan said. This means that if one member of a pair of identical twins has autism, the other will usually be affected. Having a fraternal (non-identical) twin or other sibling with autism raises a child’s likelihood of an autism diagnosis, but not as much.

Still, no one knows the degree to which genetic factors explain distinct structural and chemical characteristics in the brains of autistic individuals, which may include differences in total brain size and in the corpus callosum and amygdala.

Hardan’s research team will compare the level of similarity in brain structures of identical twins, who share all their genes, with the brain similarities of fraternal twins, who share half of their genes. They will also compare pairs of twins with autism with typically developing (non-autistic) twins to gain insight into which developmental patterns are distinct to autism. They then hope to figure out whether and to what degree there is a correlation between genetic profiles and the brain metabolites and structures of people with autism.

The team is seeking same-sex twin pairs aged 3 to 14. Study subjects can be identical or non-identical twins. The scientists plan to scan 80 pairs in which one or both twins have autism, and 40 typically developing pairs in which neither twin has autism. The scanning method, MRI, is non-invasive and does not involve any radiation exposure. All subjects will also receive standard cognitive and IQ assessments, as well as a battery of diagnostic tests for autism.

Testing will take four to five hours over two consecutive days, and each twin who completes the testing will be compensated $100. Subjects will receive summaries of their cognitive testing results, and confirmation of whether they are identical or fraternal twins. The twins’ families will also be compensated for travel expenses to and from Stanford.

“The scientific value of the study is a major one,” Hardan concluded. “We don’t know how much is inherited in terms of specific brain abnormalities in autism, and we also need to learn more about how environmental factors play into the development of the autistic brain. This study will help us gain that understanding.”

Hardan’s collaborators on the study include Joachim Hallmayer, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Allan Reiss, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of radiology. Reiss also directs the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford and practices as a child psychiatrist at Packard Children’s.

To obtain more information or volunteer for the trial, contact the study coordinator, Sue Cleveland, at (650) 723-7809 or cleve@stanford.edu.

Authors

About Stanford Children’s Health and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford
Stanford Children’s Health, with Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford at its core, is an internationally recognized leader in world-class, nurturing care and extraordinary outcomes in every pediatric and obstetric specialty from the routine to rare, for every child and pregnant woman. Together with our Stanford Medicine physicians, nurses, and staff, we deliver this innovative care and research through partnerships, collaborations, outreach, specialty clinics and primary care practices at more than 100 locations in the U.S. western region. As a non-profit, we are committed to supporting our community – from caring for uninsured or underinsured kids, homeless teens and pregnant moms, to helping re-establish school nurse positions in local schools. Learn more about our full range of preeminent programs and network of care at stanfordchildrens.org, and on our Healthier, Happy Lives blog. Join us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford is the heart of Stanford Children’s Health, and is one of the nation’s top hospitals for the care of children and expectant mothers. For a decade, we have received the highest specialty rankings of any Northern California children’s hospital, according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2014-15 Best Children’s Hospitals survey, and are the only hospital in Northern California to receive the national 2013 Leapfrog Group Top Children’s Hospital award for quality and patient care safety. Discover more at stanfordchildrens.org.

About Stanford University School of Medicine
The Stanford University School of Medicine consistently ranks among the nation’s top medical schools, integrating research, medical education, patient care and community service. For more news about the school, please visit http://mednews.stanford.edu. The medical school is part of Stanford Medicine, which includes Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. For information about all three, please visit http://stanfordmedicine.org/about/news.html.