Monday, December 28, 2009

New study links Autism and Schizophrenia

As the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with new data earlier this month, verifying that autism and autism spectrum disorders are much more prevalent among children than previously thought, researchers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver have found that autism and schizophrenia may be genetic opposites, pointing to the possibility of new treatments for autism spectrum disorders.

According to evolutionary biologist Bernard Crespi and his co-authors, Philip Stead and Michael Elliot, autism and schizophrenia are each caused by anomalies in the same places in the human genome. People without either disorder usually have two copies of these genes; people with autism were found to have a single copy, while those with schizophrenia had extra copies.

"Autism and schizophrenia have always been regarded as being quite similar, but our data pretty much says the opposite," Crespi told The Vancouver Sun.

"The idea of two psychiatric illnesses being opposites is quite a controversial one."

"It's just like what people are actually doing now with cancer," designing drugs to target specific receptors on cancer cells, Crespi explained in the article. "In principle, something very similar can be done with autism and schizophrenia."

Autism and Schizophrenia have long been linked, with researchers testing controversial treatments focused on controlling symptoms rather than addressing possible causes. Studies in the 1960s gave children LSD to combat certain autistic symptoms, which then were thought to be reactions to "the disorganization of schizophrenia." This week, Dr. Chun Wong at suggests that medical marijuana could be used to treat aggressive behavior in autistic children. Other current treatments range from Applied Behavior Analysis to biomedical interventions to following a gluten- and casein-free diet (for a primer on interventions, see my earlier article here).

With autism diagnoses on the rise in the United States -- a recent Department of Health and Human Services report showed that 1 in 91 children are on the autism spectrum, and the rate among boys is a startling 1 in 58 -- the fact that the two disorders may be opposite sides of the same coin brings hope that breakthroughs in treating schizophrenia may result in similar breakthroughs on the autism front.

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