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Carnegie Mellon computer magic used to understand autism

Autism is a mysterious condition. Talk show host Jenny McCarthy wrongfully says it is caused by childhood vaccinations and others blame environmental factors, but with a team of researchers, a professor of statistics at Carnegie Mellon University has confirmed genetics outweigh environmental risk, according to the university.

Kathryn Roeder and her team sifted through data provided by 3,000 Swedish subjects including autistic individuals and a control group, in what the university is calling "the largest study of its kind to date."

Using all the machine learning magic Carnegie Mellon is known for, Roeder says her team discovered “Most of the risk for autism comes from gene variations that we all have. We all have some of the bad variants, but the question is if you have enough to put you over the edge.”

For example: some people are predisposed to being tall, some people are short. Whether you end up on either end of the spectrum depends upon your ancestor's genes, not upon whether your parents had you at a young or older age.

While it was previously accepted that autism might be caused by a variety of factors, for many years it wasn't known if nature (genetics) or nurture (environment) were more responsible for it's progress. Roeder says this particular study was powerful because it drew from a broadly sampled population, allowing results to be more ironclad than they would if participants were sought out specifically based upon risk factors for autism, which might skew the results.

In the study published in the journal Nature on July 20, Roeder's team tried to better understand the genetic map of the condition so that scientists may pick out more specific risk factors in the future. It’s Roeder’s hope that the team’s research may lead to the development of a genetic risk score, so that people can take a test to determine their particular risk for autism.

Additionally, she says the research methods employed could be used to learn more about other mysterious illnesses including schizophrenia.

“I am sure they are going to try this method right away,” she says of her fellow scientists studying the mental disorder.
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