Day 3 (Saturday, October 19) of the XXIst World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics, taking place in Boston, began with a spectacular plenary session featuring two world-class scientists as speakers—Christopher A. Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., Bullard Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Chief of the Division of Genetics at Children’s Hospital Boston, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator, and Kevin Eggan, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Harvard University Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, an HHMI Investigator, and an acknowledged world leader in stem cell biology. Dr. Walsh described recent results in the world-wide and genome-wide hunt for inherited genes for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), with an emphasis on studies looking for recessive genes in consanguineous families having members with ASDs. Dr. Eggan detailed the technical difficulties in working to create pure specific brain cell type populations from human embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, or transfer factor treatment of fibroblasts. While not minimizing the problems, he described progress along the road to this goal and indicated the enormous potential that success in the technical challenges will have in the study of disease mechanisms, particularly in psychiatric disorders. Dr.Walsh said that autism has an incidence of 1-2 per 1,000, while ASDs have an incidence of 6 per 1,000. ASDs have comorbidities of 50-60% with cognitive impairment, 10-25% with regression, and 30% with seizures/epilepsy suggesting that they are developmental disorders associated with abnormal brain development, he added. ASDs are highly heritable, Dr. Walsh said, and yet genetic causes have been identified for only a small fraction of the totality of the disorders.
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