Children with a particular gene variant who are exposed to air pollution appear to be at a higher risk of developing autism, according to researchers from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC).

Drawing on results of previous studies that have shown associations between air pollution and autism, and between autism and the MET gene, the researchers say their new study reveals that the combination of these factors increases the risk of autism.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder that leads to problems with social interactions, communication and repetitive behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that more children than ever before are being diagnosed with ASD, estimating that one in 88 children are affected.

There is currently no cure for ASD, and there are still many unanswered questions about what causes it, but the researchers say that “genetics are an important contributing factor.”

Daniel B. Campbell, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the study’s senior author, explains: “The MET gene variant has been associated with autism in multiple studies, controls expression of MET protein in both the brain and the immune system and predicts altered brain structure and function. It will be important to replicate this finding and to determine the mechanisms by which these genetic and environmental factors interact to increase the risk for autism.”

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