Are Autism and Schitzophrenia the Same Disease?

Now that the election is over, all of our brains are free to consider a broad range of topics beyond electoral politics. Thank goodness, right? I was fascinated by a piece from yesterday's Science Times about an experimental and mostly, so far, untested theory of genetics. It posits that autism, schizophrenia, and most other psychiatric conditions are actually all the same disorder, just filtered through genes of different genders. I know this is strange and complicated, so I'll let Times writer Benedict Carey explain:

Their idea is, in broad outline, straightforward. Dr. Crespi and Dr. Badcock propose that an evolutionary tug of war between genes from the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg can, in effect, tip brain development in one of two ways. A strong bias toward the father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum, toward a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development. A bias toward the mother moves the growing brain along what the researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood, their own and others’. …

In short: autism and schizophrenia represent opposite ends of a spectrum that includes most, if not all, psychiatric and developmental brain disorders. The theory has no use for psychiatry’s many separate categories for disorders, and it would give genetic findings an entirely new dimension.

In part, this makes intuitive sense. Autism spectrum conditions, including Asperger's Syndrome, have often been described as encompassing "extreme male" behavior — at least in terms of our stereotypes about how men behave. Similarly, disorders such as anxiety and depression recall stereotypes of femininity. On the extreme end of that spectrum, psychosis and hysteria are conditions that, up through Freud's time, experts believed afflicted only women. Doctors (they were almost all male, of course) thought these diseases were derived from menstruation, ignoring the social factors throughout history that have contributed to women's increased levels of anxiety and depression.

Today, we thankfully understand that men and women suffer from all of these conditions, even if some of them are more prevalent in one gender than the other. It would be fascinating to learn that our parents' genes are locked in an existential struggle to assert themselves in us, not least because it seems to affirm a cultural narrative of war between the sexes. But I'm very cautious about untested genetic theories that seem to map so closely onto our stereotypes about gender. They are so satisfying, so affirming of our biases, that they ought to be treated with extra care and held to a high standard of proof.

5 thoughts on “Are Autism and Schitzophrenia the Same Disease?

  1. B

    The biological war (on a genetic level) between sexes is as old as sex itself. Our genes own us, not the other way around. Look at other species of mammals who do not have ‘cultural narratives’ and you’ll find the same ‘gender stereotypes’. While culture is obviously incredibly complex and dynamic, the biology sets the foundation for all of it.

    So, while it’s OK to be skeptical, esp. when we’re talking about something as complex as the human brain, I think it’s fact that genes have much more to do with culture than most realize.

  2. Socrates

    Autism isn’t a disease – it’s a neurodevelopmental disorder.

    Furthermore, having an autistic spectrum condition does not preclude developing schizophrenia.

    Around 1% of people have an autistic spectrum disorder. Approximately 1% of people have schizophrenia. Approximately 0.1% of people have a dual diagnosis of autism and schizophrenia.

    Autism is strongly heritable from both maternal and paternal lines.

    This theory belongs in the trash can with intelligent design.

  3. Eli

    Schizophrenia is not a mood disorder like bipolar. It’s a perception disorder (imagining dead people rise out of sidewalks, or that they’re working for the FBI, or that their loved ones are trying to kill them). There’s nothing stereotypically male or female about it.

  4. figleaf

    Yup. I’m not adverse to the idea that there’s an epigenetic tug of war between father’s and mother’s versions of specific genes. And I understand there are other gene sites like the one the article mentions (IGF2 silencing) that, when they go too far out of balance can cause either (um, I think) blind ovum miscarriages (the implanted egg fails to develop at all when the father’s version is absent) and what becomes effectively a fatal form of cancer (when the mother’s version is absent.) And at least in the general, non-extreme cases it makes sense that a father’s copy of the gene might work to grab more resources for the fetus and the mother’s would try to leave her with more energy to have or take care of other children. So I can go that far.

    But as far as I know those would all be competitive coding for sex-based genetic activity, which, incidentally would benefit each parent’s reproductive strategies for *both* male and female offspring.

    What Crespi and Badcock are proposing, though, is that the mother’s and father’s genes compete to produce *gendered* traits in offspring, and *even if* one could make the case that either juvenile or adult men have no need to read moods (really? Not even while stereotypically deciding whether to fight, negotiate with, or flee a particular adversary?) or that juvenile or adult women have no use for the handwork and attention to detail that’s so exaggerated in people with autism?) the selective mechanisms would have to be, um, pretty complex. For instance rather than just coding to be attention-demanding, which would work for any offspring, if an “autism-like” behavior was supposed to benefit male offspring then a) there’d have to be some *additional* mechanism for producing it only or mostly in boys and b) there’d have to be some reason why the mother wouldn’t benefit from more attentive male offspring that made it (evolutionarily) worth her while to (genetically) try to fight it. Same with “schizophrenia-like” gene expression in female offspring. I mean, sure, with enough ifs you can put Paris in a bottle, and gene interactions *can* be pretty complex. But I just don’t see how the selective advantage either way would be so great that you’d wind up with parental genes battling it out for (gendered, remember) dominance.

    Another assumption, by the way, is that it would be the *father’s* genes that coded for male-like behavior or brain chemistry and not the mothers. Or vice-versa for female-like behaviors. Because, again, assuming such gendered behavior or chemistry was beneficial then presumably *both* mother and father would benefit from its expression. So why make that fathers-supply-boy-stuff assumption?

    I dunno. My guess would be that assuming there’s a gendered component at all it’ll probably turn out to be incidental/collateral to some other more critical but possibly less obvious gene interaction.

    So. I think the paragraph in the Times article just before the ones you quote says it very nicely

    “The reality, and I think both of the authors would agree, is that many of the details of their theory are going to be wrong; and it is, at this point, just a theory,” said Dr. Matthew Belmonte, a neuroscientist at Cornell University. “But the idea is plausible. And it gives researchers a great opportunity for hypothesis generation, which I think can shake up the field in good ways.”

    In other words even though they really are probably wrong about the autism is for boys, schizophrenia is for girls it might be interesting to look for other cases. But if one wanted to go there the place to first look for cases of parental gene dynamics that harm or benefit offspring regardless of *their* sex.



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