(July 12, 2012) Unprecedented progress in identifying the genetics involved in psychiatric disorders has led a trio of researchers to a startling new association: People may be more prone to autism spectrum disorders if they have family members with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
“Genetic architectures of psychiatric disorders: the emerging picture and its implications” examined the genetics of nine “cardinal psychiatric disorders” including these three and arrived at “new hypotheses about causation of the diseases (from abstract on PubMed of paper published in Archives of Journal of General Psychiatry, July 10).
Principle researcher and genetics professor Patrick Sullivan of the University of North Carolina told a local reporter that geneticists have always assumed that schizophrenia and autism are distinct conditions ("UNC Professor finds connections in autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder," Chapelboro.com, July 2012).
“We thought it would be important to go back and recheck that assumption based upon some things that have been coming out of genetics lately,” Sullivan said. A genetic analysis of three collections of people in Israel and Sweden found that, in all three populations, individuals with autism had a similar proportion of relatives with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Identifying fundamental similarities among the disorders could improve their diagnosis and treatment, he said.
This makes sense. Positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as auditory and visual hallucinations have a sensory component, and sensory processing disorders occur in an estimated 90% of individuals on the autistic spectrum. Negative symptoms such as lack of engagement with the world and other people that occur in schizophrenia also are diagnostic flags for autism.
The brain is in some ways the last frontier. Research that explores connections among brain diseases give us all hope that a map to better diagnosis and treatment someday will exist.