Study reveals why autism is more common in males

Findings may lead to gender-specific approaches for the screening of neurodevelopmental disorders

Repetitively stacking or lining up objects is a behavior sometimes associated with with autism. (Photo by Nancy J. Price via Wikimedia Commons)Males are at greater risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), than females, but the underlying reasons have been unclear. A large cohort study published today by Cell Press in the American Journal of Human Genetics provides compelling evidence in support of the "female protective model," which proposes that females require more extreme genetic mutations than do males to push them over the diagnostic threshold for neurodevelopmental disorders.

"This is the first study that convincingly demonstrates a difference at the molecular level between boys and girls referred to the clinic for a developmental disability," said study author Dr. Sébastien Jacquemont of the University Hospital of Lausanne in Switzerland. "The study suggests that there is a different level of robustness in brain development, and females seem to have a clear advantage."

A gender bias in the prevalence of neurodevelopmental disorders has been reported for ASD, intellectual disability, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some researchers have suggested that there is a social bias that increases the likelihood of diagnosis in males, whereas others have proposed that there are sex-based differences in genetic susceptibility. However, past studies investigating biological explanations for the gender bias have produced inconclusive results.

Evan Eichler, PhDTo examine this question, Dr. Jacquemont teamed up with Dr. Evan Eichler, Professor of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, to analyze DNA samples and sequencing data sets of one cohort consisting of nearly 16,000 individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders and another cohort consisting of about 800 families affected by ASD. The researchers analyzed both copy-number variants (CNVs) — individual variations in the number of copies of a particular gene—and single-nucleotide variants (SNVs) — DNA sequence variations affecting a single nucleotide.

They found that females diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder or ASD had a greater number of harmful CNVs than did males diagnosed with the same disorder. Moreover, females diagnosed with ASD had a greater number of harmful SNVs than did males with ASD. These findings suggest that the female brain requires more extreme genetic alterations than does the male brain to produce symptoms of ASD or neurodevelopmental disorders. The results also take the focus off the X chromosome for the genetic basis of the gender bias, suggesting that the burden difference is genome wide."Overall, females function a lot better than males with a similar mutation affecting brain development," Dr. Jacquemont said. "Our findings may lead to the development of more sensitive, gender-specific approaches for the diagnostic screening of neurodevelopmental disorders."


Read the study

This article is freely available on the Cell Press website for two months, until May 27, 2014: American Journal of Human Genetics, Jacquemont et al: "A higher mutational burden in females supports a 'female protective model' in neurodevelopmental disorders."


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Mary Beth O'LearyMary Beth O'Leary (@MaryBethPress) is Press Officer and Associate Media Relations Manager for Cell Press (@CellPressNews), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She began her career at Cell Press as an Senior Editorial Assistant for the journal Cell before transitioning into a role as Marketing/Publicity Coordinator. In December, she moved into her position as Press Officer for Cell Press's 29 journals. A graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, she studied literature and art history.

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