Genes related to sex steroids, neural growth, and social-emotional behavior are associated with autistic traits, empathy, and Asperger syndrome

Autism Res. 2009 Jun;2(3):157-77. doi: 10.1002/aur.80.


Genetic studies of autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have mostly focused on the "low functioning" severe clinical subgroup, treating it as a rare disorder. However, ASC is now thought to be relatively common ( approximately 1%), and representing one end of a quasi-normal distribution of autistic traits in the general population. Here we report a study of common genetic variation in candidate genes associated with autistic traits and Asperger syndrome (AS). We tested single nucleotide polymorphisms in 68 candidate genes in three functional groups (sex steroid synthesis/transport, neural connectivity, and social-emotional responsivity) in two experiments. These were (a) an association study of relevant behavioral traits (the Empathy Quotient (EQ), the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ)) in a population sample (n=349); and (b) a case-control association study on a sample of people with AS, a "high-functioning" subgroup of ASC (n=174). 27 genes showed a nominally significant association with autistic traits and/or ASC diagnosis. Of these, 19 genes showed nominally significant association with AQ/EQ. In the sex steroid group, this included ESR2 and CYP11B1. In the neural connectivity group, this included HOXA1, NTRK1, and NLGN4X. In the socio-responsivity behavior group, this included MAOB, AVPR1B, and WFS1. Fourteen genes showed nominally significant association with AS. In the sex steroid group, this included CYP17A1 and CYP19A1. In the socio-emotional behavior group, this included OXT. Six genes were nominally associated in both experiments, providing a partial replication. Eleven genes survived family wise error rate (FWER) correction using permutations across both experiments, which is greater than would be expected by chance. CYP11B1 and NTRK1 emerged as significantly associated genes in both experiments, after FWER correction (P<0.05). This is the first candidate-gene association study of AS and of autistic traits. The most promising candidate genes require independent replication and fine mapping.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Affect*
  • Aromatase / genetics
  • Asperger Syndrome / genetics*
  • Autistic Disorder / genetics*
  • Carrier Proteins / genetics
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules, Neuronal
  • Empathy*
  • Genetic Variation / genetics
  • Homeodomain Proteins / genetics
  • Humans
  • Membrane Proteins / genetics
  • Monoamine Oxidase / genetics
  • Nerve Net / growth & development*
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide / genetics
  • Receptor, trkA / genetics
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Perception
  • Steroid 11-beta-Hydroxylase / genetics
  • Steroid 17-alpha-Hydroxylase / genetics
  • Transcription Factors / genetics


  • Carrier Proteins
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules, Neuronal
  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • Membrane Proteins
  • NLGN4X protein, human
  • Transcription Factors
  • homeobox A1 protein
  • wolframin protein
  • Aromatase
  • CYP17A1 protein, human
  • Steroid 17-alpha-Hydroxylase
  • Steroid 11-beta-Hydroxylase
  • Monoamine Oxidase
  • Receptor, trkA