Autism's Link to Parents' Schizophrenia

A genetic association could lead to a better understanding of what causes autism and how to treat it.

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I read the headline on the article—"Parental Psychiatric Disorder Associated With Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Offspring"—and thought, Oh, no! Back to the bad old days of the 1950s when "refrigerator moms" were blamed for causing autism. But the article beneath this scary headline, in the May Pediatrics, is good news, the kind that could lead to better understanding of the sources of autism and, eventually, effective ways to treat or prevent it.

Julie Daniels, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, looked at the health records of the parents of 1,227 Swedish children with autism who were born between 1977 and 2003. Those parents were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with schizophrenia as parents of children who didn't have autism.

What's the good news in finding families with a heavy burden of mental illness and developmental disorders? This new study supports the hot new idea in autism research that people diagnosed with either schizophrenia or autism often share the same rare genetic mutations. Studies of early childhood brain development have shown that in both autism and schizophrenia, the brain development process is accelerated from birth to age 3.

"There's interesting, complicated things there," Judith Rapoport, head of child psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health, says of this new study. She is one of several researchers who have found common genes in schizophrenia and autism. In adults, she notes, the symptoms of autism and schizophrenia can often be similar, to the point that even trained psychiatrists are confused. In fact, it wasn't until 1980 that the shrink community formally recognized autism in the DSM, the bible of psychiatric diagnosis. Before that, it was called "schizophrenic reaction, childhood type label."

Daniels also found that the moms of those children were almost twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression or personality disorders, but that didn't hold true for the dads. That could be because of the caretaking burden. Rapoport doubts that there will turn out to be a genetic connection between autism and depression, noting that other research has shown no link.