Many more genes linked to autism

Last Updated Oct 30, 2014 9:40 AM EDT

The genetic cards a child is dealt at birth play an important role in determining their risk of developing autism. Up until now, scientists have only been able to identify nine gene mutations linked to the disorder. But new research finds evidence that the number is in fact much higher.

The new study, published today in the journal Nature, finds 33 gene variants that contribute to a child's risk for autism -- and dozens more that might be connected.

"When those genes are mutated, the communication between brain cells is severely affected such that even the basic process of learning and memory is disrupted," Dr. Alexander Kolevzon, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a researcher on the study, told CBS News.

The study also identified 70 additional genes that may also be linked to autism. The researchers found that more than 5 percent of individuals in the study with diagnosed autism had mutations in those genes as well.

The study is based on more than 14,000 DNA samples from children with autism and their parents, as well as unrelated individuals who served as the control group.

The findings from this study may bring new reason for optimism to the growing number of families touched by autism. Currently in the U.S., at least 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism each year.

"When you identify a gene in autism and you know what that gene function is and you know exactly how the protein affects brain cell connections, for example, you can start thinking about specific treatments biological treatments that can potentially reverse the deficits associated with that genetic mutation," said Kolevzon.

The study was conducted in a partnership among 37 medical institutions through the support of the Autism Sequencing Consortium. The consortium shares patient data to identify obscure genetic patterns from thousands of genomes. As the ASC has continued to add patients to its data sets, the number of genes tied to autism has steadily increased.