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Computing enables ORNL researchers to find genes responsible for autism

The research team used machine learning and the lab's powerful computers to identify genes that may affect behavior.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An Oak Ridge National Laboratory research team said they may have discovered the genes responsible for autism through the lab's powerful computing. The scientists said they hope their discovery will enable precision medicine, personalized for each person with autism. 

"If you've seen one case of autism, you've seen one case of autism, right? Everybody's different," said Dr. Michael Garvin, one of the ORNL researchers. "By bringing this information to play, we're going to be able to determine or predict your health outcomes at the individual level." 

Dr. Garvin said he and Dr. David Kainer were able to find these genes by looking at the structures of how genes interact together, rather than just looking for one gene mutation. 

"If we think of DNA as a book, we've been focusing on single-letter changes. So, typos in the story," Dr. Garvin said. "What we are looking at here are things that change words or sentences, or they move pages around ... They have bigger effects on the story, but they're difficult to detect."

The two scientists used machine learning to detect patterns in genes which helped them make their discoveries. 

"It gives us the ability to view things visually," said Dr. Kainer. "To see the structure of how different genes are interacting and their processes." 

Jodie McIntyre and Kim Kredich have children with autism. They said they hope this will make people understand autism better, and make it easier for people like their sons. 

"A society that says, 'Oh, that person has autism, this is what they need to be successful,'" McIntyre said. 

"Improve the quality of life while holding on to what we consider a gift," Kredich said. 

The researchers said they hope this technology will be used with other diseases passed on through generations. 

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