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Does a Father's exposure to environmental factors influence the risk for autism in his children?

Project end date: Ongoing project

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Genetic studies have identified about 100 candidate genes for autism, yet most cases are unexplained. The rising rates of autism suggest that gene environment interactions may be implicated in paternal factors associated with autism in children. In support of this possibility older father’s, overweight men, and men exposed to toxicants such as endocrine disruptors are all at a greater risk of having children with autism.  The risk of paternal age and having a child with ASD has been well studied with the chance of having a child with ASD being 28% higher among fathers over the age of 40, and 66% higher for men > 50 yrs.  For almost 20 years we have been studying the connections between paternal exposures and the impact on the heritable information in the sperm known as the epigenome, and its relation to development and disease in children.  The epigenome sits on top of the DNA and is responsive to factors such as toxicants, age, diet, being overweight and other lifestyle factors.  The sperm epigenome is transmitted at fertilization and can influence development and disease risk in children. Unlike DNA the epigenome can be altered by interventions such as diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes.  These interventions coupled with pre-conception screening have the potential to reduce the risk of having a child with autism.

We are planning to study the connections between environmental exposures and the sperm epigenome in relation to autism risk for children.  To do so we would like to work with families who have children with autism in a partnered research program.  The commitment requested is to help us develop an outreach program where we can reach the autism community and public with relevant messaging aimed at increasing awareness about environmental influences on dad’s health that can impact the health of his children.  This would involve virtual meetings held several times a year for no more than 90 min. We also ask that participants provide a semen sample that can be shipped from home to the University of Montreal Hospital Research Center (CRCHUM) for analysis, and respond to our health and lifestyle questionnaire. All data will be securely stored and anonymized. If participants wish we will keep them informed of our research progress and findings.

The long-term goals of our study are to develop effective public health messaging and pre-conception screening approaches to assess and modify risk of transmission via intervention. Please contact Dr. Sarah Kimmins by email [email protected]