In a new study, researchers found a specific gene linked to autism appears to undergo changes in the sperm of men who use marijuana.
The gene change occurs through a process called DNA methylation, and it could potentially be passed along to offspring.
This study is the first to demonstrate an association between a man’s cannabis use and changes of a gene in sperm that has been implicated in autism.
The research was conducted by a team from Duke University.
The team used human biologics and animal models to analyze differences between the sperm of males who smoked or ingested marijuana compared to a control group with no such exposures.
In earlier work, the researchers noted several gene alterations in the sperm of men who smoke marijuana.
The current study homed in on specific genes, notably one called Discs-Large Associated Protein 2, or DLGAP2.
This gene is involved in transmitting neuron signals in the brain and has been strongly implicated in autism, as well as schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The team identified hypomethylation at DLGAP2 in the sperm of men who used marijuana compared to controls, as well as in the sperm of rats exposed to THC compared to controls.
The team found that there was a sex-based difference in the relationship between DNA methylation and gene expression in human brain tissues.
In both male and female brain tissues, increased DNA methylation was associated with decreased gene activity.
This link was strongest in females and seemed to be less well maintained in males, though the reason for this is unknown at this time.
This anomaly was notable because the ratio of boys to girls with autism is 4:1, and there are sex differences in the neurobehavioral symptoms.
The researchers say the findings do not establish a definitive link between cannabis use and autism, but the possible connection warrants further, urgent study, given efforts throughout the country to legalize marijuana for recreational and/or medicinal uses.
One author of the study is Susan Murphy, associate professor in the department of obstetrics & gynecology.
The study is published in the journal Epigenetics.
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