The Promise of DNA Methylation in Understanding Multigenerational Factors in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Julia S. Mouat, Janine M. LaSalle

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impairments in social reciprocity and communication, restrictive interests, and repetitive behaviors. Most cases of ASD arise from a confluence of genetic susceptibility and environmental risk factors, whose interactions can be studied through epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation. While various parental factors are known to increase risk for ASD, several studies have indicated that grandparental and great-grandparental factors may also contribute. In animal studies, gestational exposure to certain environmental factors, such as insecticides, medications, and social stress, increases risk for altered behavioral phenotypes in multiple subsequent generations. Changes in DNA methylation, gene expression, and chromatin accessibility often accompany these altered behavioral phenotypes, with changes often appearing in genes that are important for neurodevelopment or have been previously implicated in ASD. One hypothesized mechanism for these phenotypic and methylation changes includes the transmission of DNA methylation marks at individual chromosomal loci from parent to offspring and beyond, called multigenerational epigenetic inheritance. Alternatively, intermediate metabolic phenotypes in the parental generation may confer risk from the original grandparental exposure to risk for ASD in grandchildren, mediated by DNA methylation. While hypothesized mechanisms require further research, the potential for multigenerational epigenetics assessments of ASD risk has implications for precision medicine as the field attempts to address the variable etiology and clinical signs of ASD by incorporating genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. In this review, we discuss the promise of multigenerational DNA methylation investigations in understanding the complex etiology of ASD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number831221
JournalFrontiers in Genetics
StatePublished - Feb 15 2022


  • autism spectrum disorder
  • DNA methylation
  • epigenetics
  • metabolism
  • multigenerational
  • neurodevelopment
  • precision medicine
  • transgenerational

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Genetics
  • Genetics(clinical)


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