Thanks to brain imaging and molecular biology, which make it possible to understand how the brain works without entering into it, science is moving much faster to understand the origins of autism and develop appropriate interventions, she says.

Q: Is autism a genetic disease?

A: The weight of genetics is very strong but environmental factors also play a role and alter brain development from the first months of fetal life. In TND, the architecture of the brain and connections, which will establish relationships between cells to constitute nerve networks - language, motor skills, learning - are altered for reasons related to genetics but also causes related to the environment: infections, toxic...

The Marianne Cohort - a research tool launched Wednesday to follow 1,700 families over ten years, including 1,200 at risk of autism, - will help clarify the interaction between genetics and environmental factors.

The international literature is unanimous: there is a big problem with taking drugs at the beginning of pregnancy, which alter, via the placenta, the organization of the brain. We saw it with Depakine, an antiepileptic drug that has caused developmental disorders in babies.

Q: What research is being done in France on genetics?

A: A network of geneticists is working to connect behavioral profiles (TND, language, attention, coordination problems) and genomic profiles.

This is a work possible today thanks to artificial intelligence: from huge databases, links between behavioral, biological and genetic data will be highlighted. Some autistic children talk, others don't: do they have the same genetic abnormalities?

Q: What impact on toddler tracking?

A: The links between prematurity and autism are strong. The brain of a premature baby, not quite finished, is fragile. Perinatal research studies new practices to stimulate babies in their social interactions, while protecting them against excessive sound, tactile and visual stimulation. In this key period of life, we can act and prevent developments towards TND.

A little later, "eye tracking" machines allow the laboratory to study the orientation of the gaze towards the other. They showed that in babies who will be diagnosed with autism at 2 years old, the time spent looking at the eyes of the other is much less. We can imagine deploying these devices, easy to use, in medical offices to help the early diagnosis of autism.

Q: Do families have a role to play?

A: We develop participatory research, with researchers and families. This opened up new avenues of research: we discovered that the first concern of families was sleep. Some autistic children don't sleep at night, others scream all night, others sleep during the day. Some are very sensitive to melatonin and others are not.

The research will allow us to find subgroups, with particular genetic profiles that give different behaviors. As each autistic child is unique, the goal is personalized medicine.

© 2023 AFP