Icelandic Genetic Research Company Discovers Autism Link Skip to content

Icelandic Genetic Research Company Discovers Autism Link

A study by the Icelandic genetic research company deCODE, the results of which were published in Nature last Wednesday, August 22, found a link between the age of the father at the time of conception and the number of genetic mutations passed to the offspring.

decode-lab-large_psFrom the lab at deCode. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

Up until now, it had been assumed that it is the age of the mother, not the father, that influences the health of the offspring, but scientists at deCODE have found evidence that the contrary might be true, as reported in a press release from the company.

The age of the mother has a minor influence on the child’s risk of developing Down syndrome, but on nothing else, while the father’s age plays an important role. According to the study’s findings, the older the father at the time of conception, the more genetic mutations passed to the child. And these mutations are responsible for diseases like autism and schizophrenia.

A 40-year-old father, explains Kári Stefánsson, CEO of deCODE, in an interview with Technology Review, passes three times as many genetic mutations to the child as a 20-year-old father. At the same time, the risk of conceiving a child that is diagnosed with schizophrenia is three times as high; the risk of an older father conceiving an autistic child is double that of a 20-year old man.

The company, which is considered a world leader in the analysis of human genes, analyzed the genomes of 78 Icelandic families with offspring who had a diagnosis of autism or schizophrenia as well as 1,800 healthy Icelanders, as the comparison group.

The survey is part of an extensive project on the link between rare genetic variants and several diseases.

The study’s results are of particular interest regarding demographic change in Iceland and the rest of western society. Since the 1970s, the average age that couples have children has been on the rise.

The average age of fathers in Iceland today is around 33. But with fathers getting older, the risk of children becoming the carrier of a genetic mutation and suffering from, for example, autism is also on the increase. The findings are in line with the continuously increasing number of diagnoses of such diseases.

Despite the results, Kári says that older couples shouldn’t however be concerned about putting their child at risk: “The risk is still a fairly small risk. Also, it isn’t unheard of that you find a biological variant that in one sense is beneficial and in another sense is dangerous.”


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