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A meta-analysis of two high-risk prospective cohort studies reveals autism-specific transcriptional changes to chromatin, autoimmune, and environmental response genes in umbilical cord blood



Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects more than 1% of children in the USA. ASD risk is thought to arise from both genetic and environmental factors, with the perinatal period as a critical window. Understanding early transcriptional changes in ASD would assist in clarifying disease pathogenesis and identifying biomarkers. However, little is known about umbilical cord blood gene expression profiles in babies later diagnosed with ASD compared to non-typically developing and non-ASD (Non-TD) or typically developing (TD) children.


Genome-wide transcript levels were measured by Affymetrix Human Gene 2.0 array in RNA from cord blood samples from both the Markers of Autism Risk in Babies-Learning Early Signs (MARBLES) and the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI) high-risk pregnancy cohorts that enroll younger siblings of a child previously diagnosed with ASD. Younger siblings were diagnosed based on assessments at 36 months, and 59 ASD, 92 Non-TD, and 120 TD subjects were included. Using both differential expression analysis and weighted gene correlation network analysis, gene expression between ASD and TD, and between Non-TD and TD, was compared within each study and via meta-analysis.


While cord blood gene expression differences comparing either ASD or Non-TD to TD did not reach genome-wide significance, 172 genes were nominally differentially expressed between ASD and TD cord blood (log2(fold change) > 0.1, p < 0.01). These genes were significantly enriched for functions in xenobiotic metabolism, chromatin regulation, and systemic lupus erythematosus (FDR q < 0.05). In contrast, 66 genes were nominally differentially expressed between Non-TD and TD, including 8 genes that were also differentially expressed in ASD. Gene coexpression modules were significantly correlated with demographic factors and cell type proportions.


ASD-associated gene expression differences identified in this study are subtle, as cord blood is not the main affected tissue, it is composed of many cell types, and ASD is a heterogeneous disorder.


This is the first study to identify gene expression differences in cord blood specific to ASD through a meta-analysis across two prospective pregnancy cohorts. The enriched gene pathways support involvement of environmental, immune, and epigenetic mechanisms in ASD etiology.

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