Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous neurodevelopmental condition with unclear etiology. Many genes have been associated with ASD risk, but the underlying mechanisms are still poorly understood. An important post-transcriptional regulatory mechanism that plays an essential role during neurodevelopment, the Nonsense-Mediated mRNA Decay (NMD) pathway, may contribute to ASD risk. In this study, we gathered a list of 46 NMD factors and regulators and investigated the role of genetic variants in these genes in ASD. By conducting a comprehensive search for Single Nucleotide Variants (SNVs) in NMD genes using Whole Exome Sequencing data from 1828 ASD patients, we identified 270 SNVs predicted to be damaging in 28.7% of the population. We also analyzed Copy Number Variants (CNVs) from two cohorts of ASD patients (N = 3570) and discovered 38 CNVs in 1% of cases. Importantly, we discovered 136 genetic variants (125 SNVs and 11 CNVs) in 258 ASD patients that were located within protein domains required for NMD. These gene variants are classified as damaging using in silico prediction tools, and therefore may interfere with proper NMD function in ASD. The discovery of NMD genes as candidates for ASD in large patient genomic datasets provides evidence supporting the involvement of the NMD pathway in ASD pathophysiology.
Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; copy number variants; nonsense-mediated mRNA decay; single nucleotide variants.