For years, health experts (and worried parents) have been trying to understand the exact cause of autism. Pollution? Chemical exposure? Genetics? Doctors are slowly realizing that it is probably a complex combination of all three factors. To complicate matters further, three new studies were published on June 8 showing that autism is linked to not just one genetic component, but to hundreds.

According to research that examined the genetic sources of the disorder in more than 1,000 families, there are hundreds of different genetic mutations that form the basis for autism. The studies, published yesterday in the journal Neuron, show just how complex and varied the disorder can be. Researchers are considering the possibility that each genetic mutation, or combination of mutations, may lead to a different and distinct form of autism.  

One thing the mutations seem to have in common is that they appear to be part of a large network of genes that control the development of synapses, or the junctions between nerve cells that help nerves communicate within the body. While it may sound daunting, particularly to parents of children with autism, this new research may bring doctors that much closer to unlocking the mysteries behind autism — promoting more accurate diagnoses and more effective treatments.