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The past decade has seen the development of services for adults presenting with symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the UK. Compared with children, little is known about the phenotypic and genetic characteristics of these patients.
This e-cohort study aimed to examine the phenotypic and genetic characteristics of a clinically presenting sample of adults diagnosed with ASD by specialist services.
Individuals diagnosed with ASD as adults were recruited by the National Centre for Mental Health and completed self-report questionnaires, interviews and provided DNA; 105 eligible individuals were matched to 76 healthy controls. We investigated demographics, social history and comorbid psychiatric and physical disorders. Samples were genotyped, copy number variants (CNVs) were called and polygenic risk scores were calculated.
Of individuals with ASD, 89.5% had at least one comorbid psychiatric diagnosis, with depression (62.9%) and anxiety (55.2%) being the most common. The ASD group experienced more neurological comorbidities than controls, particularly migraine headache. They were less likely to have married or be in work, and had more alcohol-related problems. There was a significantly higher load of autism common genetic variants in the adult ASD group compared with controls, but there was no difference in the rate of rare CNVs.
This study provides important information about psychiatric comorbidity in adult ASD, which may inform clinical practice and patient counselling. It also suggests that the polygenic load of common ASD-associated variants may be important in conferring risk within the non-intellectually disabled population of adults with ASD.
Rare copy number variants (CNVs) are associated with risk of neurodevelopmental disorders characterised by varying degrees of cognitive impairment, including schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability. However, the effects of many individual CNVs in carriers without neurodevelopmental disorders are not yet fully understood, and little is known about the effects of reciprocal copy number changes of known pathogenic loci.
We aimed to analyse the effect of CNV carrier status on cognitive performance and measures of occupational and social outcomes in unaffected individuals from the UK Biobank.
We called CNVs in the full UK Biobank sample and analysed data from 420 247 individuals who passed CNV quality control, reported White British or Irish ancestry and were not diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders. We analysed 33 pathogenic CNVs, including their reciprocal deletions/duplications, for association with seven cognitive tests and four general measures of functioning: academic qualifications, occupation, household income and Townsend Deprivation Index.
Most CNVs (24 out of 33) were associated with reduced performance on at least one cognitive test or measure of functioning. The changes on the cognitive tests were modest (average reduction of 0.13 s.d.) but varied markedly between CNVs. All 12 schizophrenia-associated CNVs were associated with significant impairments on measures of functioning.
CNVs implicated in neurodevelopmental disorders, including schizophrenia, are associated with cognitive deficits, even among unaffected individuals. These deficits may be subtle but CNV carriers have significant disadvantages in educational attainment and ability to earn income in adult life.
There is strong evidence that people born in winter and in spring have a small increased risk of schizophrenia. As this ‘season of birth’ effect underpins some of the most influential hypotheses concerning potentially modifiable risk exposures, it is important to exclude other possible explanations for the phenomenon.
Here we sought to determine whether the season of birth effect reflects gene-environment confounding rather than a pathogenic process indexing environmental exposure. We directly measured, in 136 538 participants from the UK Biobank (UKBB), the burdens of common schizophrenia risk alleles and of copy number variants known to increase the risk for the disorder, and tested whether these were correlated with a season of birth.
Neither genetic measure was associated with season or month of birth within the UKBB sample.
As our study was highly powered to detect small effects, we conclude that the season of birth effect in schizophrenia reflects a true pathogenic effect of environmental exposure.
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