3D facial scans could give the genetic causes of autism

The facial asymmetry of autistic children may be related to heritability factors.

An old study from ECU, UWA, and Telethon Kids Institute has suggested that autistic children are more likely to have more significant facial asymmetry. Hence, scientists from Edith Cowan University (ECU) decided to understand the facial characteristics of autistic people.

Understanding the facial characteristics of autistic people contribute to efforts for early identification. It also helps in understanding hereditary (or genetic) causal links.

In a new study, scientists are using high-tech 3D facial scans to understand the genetic causes of Autism better. Using sophisticated machine learning techniques, they analyzed 5000 points on faces to measure facial asymmetry in parents of children with the autism spectrum.

Along with genetic factors, environmental factors, such as hormones or maternal health, could also influence the development of the condition.

Scientists compared the facial asymmetry of 192 parents of autistic children to 163 adults with no known history of Autism.

ECU School of Science Research Fellow Dr. Syed Zulqarnian Gilani said, “These findings suggest there could be a link between the genes which affect the likelihood of an individual having greater facial asymmetry and Autism. By using these cutting-edge 3D scans of faces combined with machine learning techniques, we can distinguish between thousands of subtle differences in faces to determine an overall facial asymmetry score.”

“When we compared those scores, we saw that faces of parents of autistic children were more likely to have higher asymmetry compared to other adults.”

Dr. Diana Tan, the project’s lead author, said, “Autism is not traditionally known to be a condition with distinctive facial features, but our research has challenged this notion. Our study provided evidence that the genetic factors leading to the development of Autism may also express in physical characteristics, which leads to our understanding of the interplay between genes, physical and brain development in humans.”

“We previously examined another facial marker — facial masculinity — that was associated with Autism. The next step of this project would be to evaluate the usefulness of combining facial asymmetry and masculinity in determining the likelihood of autism diagnosis.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Diana Weiting Tan, Syed Zulqarnain Gilani, Maryam Boutros, Gail A. Alvares, Andrew J. O. Whitehouse, Ajmal Mian, David Suter, Murray T. Mayberry. Facial asymmetry in parents of children on the autism spectrum. Autism Research, 2021; DOI: 10.1002/aur.2612

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