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Paternal age and autism research up for Times Higher Award

OCTOBER 01, 2007

Dr Avi Reichenberg, Institute of Psychiatry, has been shortlisted for the Research Project of the Year Award in the prestigious Times Higher Awards for his work on paternal age and autism. His was the first project to examine the relationship between older father's age and risk of autism in children.

‘I am delighted to be shortlisted for a Times Higher Award. It acknowledges the importance of my research in helping us to better understand the origins of autism and related disorders,' comments Dr Reichenberg. He also recently received the College's inaugural King's Award for Research Project of the Year 2007.

From 1999 to 2004, the number of new fathers aged 40 or over rose by a third, which led the Times Higher to note ‘This is why research on autism by a team led by Abraham Reichenberg has important benefits in public health as well as scientific advancement.'

Autism is a severe disorder of social and language development, and repetitive patterns of behaviour. The incidence of autism has increased dramatically over the past decade, and it is now estimated that the disorder will affect one in every 150 newborn children. Despite extensive efforts, the causes of autism, and the reasons for the recent increase in its incidence, remain unknown.

The age of parenting has been increasing in the Western world in the past two decades, in parallel with the increase in rates of autism.

Dr Reichenberg explains: ‘The associations between advancing maternal age and birth defects such as Down's syndrome have long been recognised, but paternal age has been largely ignored. Recent research has shown that the offspring of older fathers are at increased risk of neurological and psychiatric disorders, and this inspired me to test for a similar effect in autism.'

Collaborating with Israeli and American researchers, the team found that children born to fathers aged 40 or older were almost six times more likely to have autism and related disorders than those born to fathers under 30. Interestingly, the age of the mother did not affect the risk of autism.

The project was conducted using unique Israeli population registers, and it has since been replicated by three other research groups. The finding is important because it may offer an insight into the genetic causes of autism.

Media interest
The study generated widespread international interest in the research community and was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, as well as the media, coverage in The Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Los-Angeles Times, BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, CNN and ABC.

Avi Reichenberg is a neuropsychologist and epidemiologist. He received his PhD with honours from the Department of Psychology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He then joined the faculty at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York where he established the neuropsychology laboratory at the Family Studies Research Center. In 2006 he joined the Psychological Medicine and Psychiatry Department at the Institute of Psychiatry. His research focuses on the etiology of autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, including studies of perinatal and developmental risk factors, and cognitive endophenotypes.
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