Around 1% of people around the world have an intellectual disability (ID), otherwise known as a learning disability. While these disabilities can impact many aspects of life, we are only beginning to understand their genetic causes due to recent advancements in gene sequencing methods. These technologies have allowed researchers to also look at how specific IDs impact brain development, cognitive function, and mental health over time. This study, conducted by scientists at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, looked at whether or not genes can predict whether people with IDs will develop features of Autism Spectrum Disorder. By identifying and measuring three core dimensions of autism—inflexibility, social understanding, and social motivation—researchers were able to look at how genes and behavioural traits associated with autism varied in people with IDs. Their results established a link between genetic diagnoses of ID and autism, but with a caveat: these genetic relationships vary greatly between individuals. Each person is unique, and there are many different genetic and cognitive factors that define our experiences. In order to understand how autistic traits arise in people with ID, future research should aim to integrate these complex differences between individual people.
Citation: Brkić, D., Ng-Cordell, E., O’Brien, S. et al. Gene functional networks and autism spectrum characteristics in young people with intellectual disability: a dimensional phenotyping study. Molecular Autism 11, 98 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-020-00403-9