Komal Agrawal
Komal Agrawal
Komal Agrawal
Helios Scholar
School: Arizona State University
Hometown: Chandler, Arizona
Mentor: Matthew Huentelman, Ph.D.

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The relationship between autism spectrum disorder and telomere length

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder with two diagnostic criteria: social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive behaviors and interests. However, individuals with ASD commonly experience cognitive deficits as a comorbid symptom. Despite ASD affecting 1 in 68 children in the United States, there is a lack of effective pharmaceutical treatments for both core and cognitive symptoms. We investigated shortened telomere length as a possible molecular mechanism underlying the cognitive deficits in ASD. Telomeres are repetitive non-coding DNA nucleotides that protect genes by capping chromosome ends, and shortened telomeres have been associated with age-related cognitive decline. We investigated the relationship between relative telomere length (RTL) and childhood autism and the relationship between RTL and cognitive function. We hypothesized children with ASD would have shorter RTL than age-matched neurotypical controls. Additionally, we hypothesized that shorter RTL would be associated with lower levels of cognitive function as measured by the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC). We investigated the association between RTL and childhood ASD in males with an established quantitative polymerase chain reaction method (ASD n = 186, Control n = 107). We designed telomere and single-copy reference gene primers from an established protocol. We assessed RTL between groups using analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) with age as a covariate. We assessed the relationship between RTL and WISC scores using Pearson-correlation. Preliminary findings (ASD n = 31, Control n = 29, ~20% of entire sample) demonstrate no significant difference in RTL between the ASD and control groups. Continued analysis of the entire sample and correlational analysis are in progress. After completing the study, our results may support our hypothesized relationship between shortened RTL and childhood autism. The relationship between RTL and performance on the WISC is still in progress. Future research will determine if telomere length is an effective treatment target for addressing cognitive deficits associated with ASD.