"Autism" is a broad term that describes a spectrum of developmental brain disorders. There are several disorders that fall under the umbrella of autism, including pervasive developmental disorders, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and Rett syndrome. The causes of autism are not clearly understood, so autism research covers a variety of topics. Researchers have been studying the genetic components playing a role in autism along with the impact of undetermined environmental factors. There also is evidence that the immune system plays a role in autism, and this area of autism research has grown.
Childhood autism is typically discovered prior to a child’s third birthday and is characterized by repetitive or restricted behavior and impaired communication or social interaction. The condition of autism affects how the brain processes information by changing how synapses and nerve cells organize and connect. Current autism research has indicated a strong genetic link to the development of autism. Most autism research appears to have shown that a combination of factors share responsibility for autism in children.
The field of genetics has been a heavy focus for autism research. Some cases can be linked to a handful of genetic disorders, including Angelman’s syndrome, tuberous sclerosis or fragile X. Researchers have not found a single gene that specifically causes autism, but studies have looked for irregular segments of genetic code in autistic children or other factors that would provide clues to what appear to be hereditary or genetic links to autism development. There has been evidence found that a strong genetic or hereditary link exists, with many research cases showing multiple cases of autism within one family.
A great deal of autism research looks at the role of environmental factors in autism development. Exposure to environmental agents at some point of a child’s development appears to play a role in the presence of autism. This includes infectious agents such as cytomegalovirus or maternal rubella as well as chemical agents such as valproate or thalidomide. The incidence and volume of exposure before, during and after birth for suspected environmental agents have been under consideration in autism research.
Researchers have paid close attention to the role of the immune system in the presence of autism. Evidence has indicated that autism might involve central nervous system inflammation. Some animal studies have pointed to a connection between autism and the immune system as well.