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OHSU doctors partner with hundreds of families for in-depth autism study

OHSU Dr. Brian O'Roak

A massive autism study called SPARK is underway at Oregon Health and Science University, and researchers say they're hoping to unveil more about the developmental disorder.

Julie and Richard Sterrett's identical twin boys Andre and Jordan have been enrolled in OHSU's SPARK program. They're overseen by OHSU doctors like Brian O'Roak, who is studying autism in twins like Andre and Jordan.

"I think if you compare our understanding of Autism 10 years ago to where we are today, we've made dramatic improvements," Dr. O'Roak said. "We actually think there are more difference between identical twins than currently appreciated."

Dr. O'Roak helped lead OHSU's part in a national study called SPARK -- the largest Autism study in history.

"After two years, we have more than 35,000 individuals with autism and their families that have signed up," Dr. O'Roak said.

More than 2,400 of those people are from Oregon, but researchers are still looking for more volunteers.

To help, all you need is an autism diagnosis. Doctors will send you a swab to collect DNA and they'll ask for your family's medical history.

In another two years, researchers believe they'll know all about genetic risk for autism, including narrowing down that window of where the biology of autism starts in the womb.

"We can look at the genomes of the father, the mother and the child and look for new things that just occurred in the conception of that child. And that's been a really powerful way of identifying these new risk factors," Dr. O'Roak said.

Researchers believe there could be 100 more high-risk genes left to uncover.

"If we can have a better understanding of how the brain is different then we can design new therapies that actually are tailored to individuals who are connected that way," Dr. O'Roaj said. "Autism is so complex and there's just a lot more to learn. We really need to go to a new model where families are really research partners."

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