Study finds greater facial asymmetry in parents of autistic individuals

Recent research in Western Australia employs high-tech 3D facial scans to provide better knowledge of the genetic causes of autism.

Study finds greater facial asymmetry in parents of autistic individuals
3D face scans were produced for participants before analysis. Image Credit: Edith Cowan University.

Scientists from the Edith Cowan University (ECU) employed advanced machine learning techniques to examine 5000 points on faces to measure facial asymmetry in parents of children on the autism spectrum.

The scientists from ECU, the University of Western Australia (UWA), and the Telethon Kids Institute have earlier discovered that children on the autism spectrum were very likely to have increased facial asymmetry when compared to non-autistic children.

This is vital as a thorough knowledge of the facial characteristics of autistic people can help in the efforts for early detection and understand hereditary (or genetic) causal links. Genetic factors play a key role in autism but there is increasing evidence that environmental factors, like maternal health or hormones, can also impact the development of the condition.

In recent research, scientists compared the facial asymmetry of 192 parents of autistic children to 163 adults who had no known history of autism. They observed that parents of children on the autism spectrum possessed greater asymmetric faces when compared to other adults of a similar age.

ECU School of Science Research Fellow Dr. Syed Zulqarnian Gilani remarked that the study was a significant step in gaining better insights into the genetic grounds of autism.

Dr. Syed Zulqarnian Gilani adds, “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 Syed Zulqarnian Gilani, Research Fellow, School of Science, Edith Cowan University

A new way of looking at autism

Dr. Diana Tan, the project’s lead author, and a Postdoctoral Research Associate at UWA and Telethon Kids Institute, stated that the study helps enhance the knowledge of autism.

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.”

Dr Diana Tan, Postdoctoral Research Associate, The University of Western Australia

Dr. Tan also stated, “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.”

Source:
Journal reference:

Tan, D. W., et al. (2021) Facial asymmetry in parents of children on the autism spectrum. Autism Research. doi.org/10.1002/aur.2612.

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