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A New Theory Of Mental Disorders
November 11, 2008 11:49 AM   Subscribe

"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’. This, according to the theory, increases a child’s risk of developing schizophrenia later on, as well as mood problems like bipolar disorder and depression."
posted by grumblebee (43 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Men are from navel-gazing Jupiterbrains, women are from Mercurial temperament, and I ... I am from Night's Plutonian shore.
posted by adipocere at 11:57 AM on November 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


Even if this turns out to be utter shit, I'm turned on by it. It makes me think of "The Oresteia", "Hamlet," "Oedipus," "Whose Afraid of Virgina Woolf?" and Freud.
posted by grumblebee at 11:59 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I haven't read the links yet, but this seems highly suspicious to me.... and grumblebee, I understand the literary excitement and the associations that this theory raises, but it seems on the face of it to be just more of the same old same old.
posted by jokeefe at 12:10 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Men are from navel-gazing Jupiterbrains, women are from Mercurial temperament, and I ... I am from Night's Plutonian shore.

heh.

What an innovative idea these doctors have. Pardon my cynicism, but this sounds like splendid noveau cutting-edge rehash of gender cliches. Was this just really shitty science reporting or is this as pie-in-the-sky, armchair theorizing by smart people using cultural archetypes as the basis for scientific explanation as it seems?

Did I miss something or did they not even bother to ask what they make of a psychotic child born to an Autistic mom, or an Autistic child who has a dad with a history of schizophrenia or psychosis? Are they arguing that despite the heritable disorders of one parent or another, Autism is "contracted" from the dad, even if it's the mom that's Autistic?
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:10 PM on November 11, 2008


After reading this, I think I'm both.
posted by Mister_A at 12:10 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Where's the adaptive value?

We do know of cases where paternal and maternal genes "fight it out" (or the fetus's genes fight the mother's own genes), but the adaptive value is clearer: since the mother is the same in the current pregnancy and in any subsequent pregnancy she has, more of the mother's genes will be perpetuated if she has many pregnancies, thus encouraging not putting so many resources into this pregnancy that it prevents her from having more children.

Contra, for the fetus, this is the sole and only pregnancy that's going to result in it's birth, so if burning out mom results in it being bigger and stronger, that's a net gain for its genes, at the expense of mom's genes and (potential) siblings and their genes. But since half of its genes are also mom's genes, it's really only a net gain for...

The fetus's paternal genes, which are also the genes of the father. Since the father who is the father in this pregnancy may notadaptive value for paternal genes to "prefer" autistics? (One can see some adaptive value to hyper-sensitive feminized mamma's boys, they probably stick around to care for their siblings, momma's additonal genetic legacy.)

Are the autistics more likely to leave home earlier, tell momma the siblings are her problem, and father a bunch of his own children? But we all know autistics, lacking in social development, don't get the girl(s). Is the paternal thing merely a response, a defense against mom feminizing the offspring into caring for siblings?
posted by orthogonality at 12:13 PM on November 11, 2008


I've heard several neuroscientists studying this angle - it sounded fishy to me when it was presented but the hypothesis is that there are epigenetic modifications to the haploid DNA in the sperm and in the egg that biases towards one end of the spectrum or another. It's when it goes too far that 'bad' things such as autism or schizophrenia happen.

A claim that has been made to me, but I haven't fact checked, is that there are no autistic people with schizophrenia and there are no schizophrenics with autism...

Interesting ideas, but a lot more good evidence has to be presented before this has any traction whatsoever.
posted by porpoise at 12:14 PM on November 11, 2008


I would like to know more about the science behind this excerpt from the NYT article:
Those with the genetic disorder called Angelman, or “happy puppet,” syndrome practically dance through the day, have difficulty communicating and are demanding of caregivers. Those born with a genetic problem known as Prader-Willi syndrome are placid, compliant and as youngsters low maintenance.

Yet these two disorders, which turn up in about one of 10,000 newborns, stem from disruptions of the same genetic region on chromosome 15. If the father’s genes dominate in this location, the child develops Angelman syndrome; if the mother’s do, the result is Prader-Willi syndrome, as Dr. Haig and others have noted. The former is associated with autism, and the latter with mood problems and psychosis — just as the new theory predicts.

posted by exogenous at 12:15 PM on November 11, 2008


This is truly fascinating, if only as an idea. As an adoptee I have always been intrigued by the nature/nurture debate. As an adoptee fortunate enough to have met both birth parents in my late teens/early twenties, maintaining deepening relationships with both into my years of marriage and parenthood (both boys and a girl), I have marvelled at the extent to which I am able to distinguish which parts of who I am separate into mother and/vs. father. I can see the leanings in my children as well. No full-blown mental illnesses exactly, but a spectrum is a spectrum. Granted there may be temptation to lapse into reading things into a horoscope in the newspaper, but it seems to me there is something here.

And, grumblebee, those may be four of my all time favorite dramatic works. I guess "Long Day's Journey into Night" doesn't fit in here, but it's been awhile since I read it.
posted by emhutchinson at 12:16 PM on November 11, 2008


Just to be clear, this is a nascent theory, nothing more or less. It may prove to be incorrect on the particulars and on the general concept, but it is an interesting theory. I won't dismiss it simply because it does not appeal to our sense of fair play and concepts of gender equality. Nature is not about either of these things. Men and women are not equal, and only a fool would believe such a thing–but neither is superior to the other, either.

Additionally, there need not be an obvious adaptive value to a thing for it to exist in nature. The structure of our retina is distinctly maladaptive, for instance, when taken in isolation.
posted by Mister_A at 12:20 PM on November 11, 2008


I would definitely include "Long Day's Journey Into Night." And, of course, "The Magic Flute."
posted by grumblebee at 12:22 PM on November 11, 2008


Just to be clear, this is a nascent theory, nothing more or less. It may prove to be incorrect on the particulars and on the general concept, but it is an interesting theory. I won't dismiss it simply because it does not appeal to our sense of fair play and concepts of gender equality.

It would be interesting if eventually people discover a genetic / epigenetic basis for gender inequality ... and shortly after figure out how to fix it.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:26 PM on November 11, 2008


I've long held that normality is nothing more than the temporary static equilibrium of competing mental extremes. Which is to say that if sanity is the balancing point, then it is both a damper on certain levels of insight inherent in the outliers of perception and also potentially the fulcrum from which truly heinous metaphors can overbalance a system and catapult qualia violently into the ether to splat like a bug on God's windshield.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:29 PM on November 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


Epigenetics is fascinating to me. But now that I know about it, I keep wondering, "Is there yet another level, below that?" I suppose that's how real physicists feel.
posted by adipocere at 12:32 PM on November 11, 2008


In other words, you're screwed no matter what.
posted by tommasz at 12:37 PM on November 11, 2008


Just to be clear, this is a nascent theory, nothing more or less. It may prove to be incorrect on the particulars and on the general concept, but it is an interesting theory. I won't dismiss it simply because it does not appeal to our sense of fair play and concepts of gender equality.

Hey, watch out for the straw man. I don't think anyone's questioning it merely because it offends our delicate sensibilities. That's not where my skepticism comes from.

Rather, it's because it seems like a sloppy, poorly thought out and tendentious theory (at least insofar as the NYT article presents it) that is likely to fascinate the public in part because it confirms sloppy stereotypes about gender. And we are often a little too inclined to find theories "brilliant" and "insightful" because they confirm our own cultural biases. I don't dismiss, for example, Simon Baron-Cohen's gender-related research on Austism, in part because in every journalistic account of it that I've come across there's been a clear explanation and demonstration of empirical evidence.

This, on the other hand, seems largely speculative.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:37 PM on November 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


Has the viral theory of schizophrenia been entirely debunked, then? I thought it looked pretty persuasive.
posted by longdaysjourney at 12:38 PM on November 11, 2008


My own observation is that many stereotypes and clichés can have a fuzzy truth to them: though pure archetypes are rare, the people they typify often do actually exist, with a mix of both conforming traits and exceptional ones. The view of a stereotype as a hard category is simply false; the view of a stereotype as range of tendencies can be true, and possibly a hint of real patterns.

The posted theory might be false, but I think to its credit it talks in terms of spectrum and bias rather than hard types and universal gender characteristics people are worrying will be pulled in from literature and the like. As far as I've heard, men do seem to have a greater tendency to autism than women. What to do with that fact? I don't think it's particularly offensive to say "OK, maybe there's a capital A-autistic archetypical brain that might be at one end of a spectrum and maybe there are gender-related genetic factors that tend to operate more on men" and something similar for women. If there's any problem, it's where popular understanding decides to boil understanding down from a continuum to binary exclusive categories.
posted by weston at 12:40 PM on November 11, 2008


Agree entirely with foxy_hedgehog.

Also, Dr. Badcock? Seriously?
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:52 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm willing to buy into this in any case of a child whose parents were conceived by parthenogenesis. As it is, I'm pretty sure my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather were involved somewhere along the line.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:56 PM on November 11, 2008


Why does it have to be epigenetic? Many genes can have differing (or even opposite) effects in different individuals without being a "tug-of-war" between the mother and father's genes. Seems to me that this is a specific detail in a rather sweeping theory.
posted by kisch mokusch at 1:04 PM on November 11, 2008


As far as I've heard, men do seem to have a greater tendency to autism than women. What to do with that fact? I don't think it's particularly offensive to say "OK, maybe there's a capital A-autistic archetypical brain that might be at one end of a spectrum and maybe there are gender-related genetic factors that tend to operate more on men" and something similar for women.

You are saying that genes for Autism may express themselves more frequently in men. I find that reasonable. That's not what these folks are saying.

And, btw, schizophrenia is also more common- and more severe- in men.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:12 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, and Dr. Badcock. Heh.

Lake Titicaca, etc.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:14 PM on November 11, 2008


Well... I can't really tell if its just the NYT's fault, or a problem with the underlying theory, but I'm trying to see the sparkle here. Without a link to at least an abstract of the peer-reviewed and published work, there isn't much point in having a discussion about this.

So on the genetics side, part of the problem is, well meiosis. There is nothing particularly special about the father's genes. Half of them were the paternal grandmother's genes. And half of the mother's genes were her paternal grandfather's.

If the theory is just that during pregnancy mothers have currently unidentified roles in modifying fetal gene expression. It's still not news. We knew that with thalidomide and birth-order effects.

Perhaps I'm just missing it, because this seems to be yet another stupid-bad science link to the metafilter pointing to a story built on nothing other than interviews and press releases, but where is the beef?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:47 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Perhaps I'm just missing it, because this seems to be yet another stupid-bad science link to the metafilter pointing to a story built on nothing other than interviews and press releases, but where is the beef?

Agreed. On the rare occasions when a NYT Science section article is on something I sort of know something about, I'm always dismayed by the poor quality of the reporting.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:49 PM on November 11, 2008


This 1991 study concluded that schizophrenia was as common among autistics as in the general population. I don't fully follow this abstract but to my understanding it is suggesting that schizophrenia is an anomaly of cerebral dominance - it mentions autism but the context is unclear from the abstract.

This is about the somewhat successful treatment with secretin of a patient with both schizophrenic and autistic features.

I think the major implication from these three studies is that the conditions can and do coexist. They may of course be related (and probably are).
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:51 PM on November 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


This isn't even the Science section of the NYT, it's "Health" - perhaps that's part of the beeflessness problem.
posted by exogenous at 1:52 PM on November 11, 2008


Show me the data!

Because I don't buy it...sounds like major handwaving and speculation.
posted by emd3737 at 1:53 PM on November 11, 2008


Handwaving comes from the mother and speculation comes from the father. I think you're detracting from the point you're trying to make.
posted by pmbuko at 2:01 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


There is a scale measuring focus. Women are clustered towards the wide, gestalt, end on the left and men are clustered towards the narrow, focused, end on the right. Go too far off either end and you find mental disorder.

Because of the male/female split, and our society's emphasis on the importance of men, disorders at the right end are taken seriously and studied in detail: we call their victims autistic.

Because of the male/female split, and our society's emphasis on the subordination of women, disorders at the left end are disregarded and unstudied: we tell blonde jokes about them.

That's my bullshit new theory of mental disorders anyway.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:02 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


orthogonality: Where's the adaptive value?

It is a profound mistake to assume that every possible phenotype observed within a population exists because it has adaptive value. In fact, quantitative models of evolution suggest the exact opposite. The existence of a minority at the tails of the distribution is an artifact of selective pressure favoring a comfortable heterozygous central tendency.

And of course, genetics usually only explains a fraction of the phenotypic variance, so it's possible for a person to have the worst possible combination of genes and still end up comfortably in the centeral hump.

Which again, geneticists and psychologists already know this.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:24 PM on November 11, 2008


I realise it's not quite what he meant, but...
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

This Be The Verse
Philip Larkin
posted by Grangousier at 2:30 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Somewhat previously.
posted by telstar at 2:58 PM on November 11, 2008


Genetic imprinting has been known for quite a while and in the most common case, involving chromosome 15, what causes problems is when the imprinting does not happen in a normal way. Usually that specific area of DNA gets methylated during egg formation, but does not during sperm formation.

If something goes wrong, for example if during sperm manufacturing, the methylation on the chromosome inherited by the mother does not get removed (erasure of previous imprinting), then the sperm will be methylated and the baby will have two methylated chromosomes 15 and will suffer with Angelman's syndrome.

Since genes get methylated randomly during imprinting either in maternal or paternal bodies, depending on the gene, it is difficult for me to make the jump to see strong bias push toward either mother or father.

I'll try to keep an open mind.
posted by francesca too at 3:01 PM on November 11, 2008


I had no idea that schizophrenia and autism were polar opposites.
“Think of the grandiosity in schizophrenia, how some people think that they are Jesus, or Napoleon, or omnipotent,” Dr. Crespi said, “and then contrast this with the underdeveloped sense of self in autism. Autistic kids often talk about themselves in the third person.”
I must be bipolar because I often talk about Jesus in the third person.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:33 PM on November 11, 2008


Joy, more gender stereotyping.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:33 PM on November 11, 2008


I say cake and feng shui are opposites forming a continuum of practical utility. Similar to the relationship between wind and water.
posted by scheptech at 4:44 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Karl Zimmer has a post on this, and he wrote a great article about the shift towards epigenetics. The epigenome refers to chunks of molecules that are 'attached' to DNA and can be inherited.

Since Karl Zimmer wrote about it, it's probably pretty good science.

One thing that it's important to point out is that epigenetics can also be effected by the environment. So, it's possible (as far as I can tell) that you can have something disrupt your epigenetic inheritance, and then have that pass on to your kids (again, as far as I can tell).

Finally, the idea that this plays into "traditional gender rolls" is absurd. Junk attached to your genome has nothing to do with gender rolls and while it may have come about due to genetic sexual conflict, it's really got nothing to do with the "men are from mars, women are from venus" crap. In fact, it's all about how the kids turn out.
posted by delmoi at 5:12 PM on November 11, 2008


I used to work in a center that David Haig was affiliated with and was fortunate to hear him speak several times about gene imprinting and parent-offspring conflict. While the specific theory proposed here about gene imprinting and brain development is relatively now, my understanding is that the imprinting link to Prader-Willi and Angelman syndromes is very well understood and is in agreement with what is expected from theory.

Here's a paper describing the parent-offspring theory and its link to Prader-Willi Syndrome. This paper looks like a newer theoretical analysis.

For those of you who want to learn more, David Haig has made many of his papers available on his web site.

Also, here's the essay in Nature that appears to have sparked the press report. The fact that it's an essay indicates that it's designed to spark discussion and isn't a fully fleshed out piece of research. I don't know if it was peer reviewed, but I would guess it was.

Crespi and Badcock appear to have published two other papers on this idea as well.
posted by pombe at 5:41 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Junk attached to your genome has nothing to do with gender rolls

mmmmm.... gender rolls!
posted by moxiedoll at 6:07 PM on November 11, 2008


delmoi: Do you take your gender rolls with apple butter, or blackberry jam?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:35 PM on November 11, 2008


KirkJobSluder: I was thinking more along the lines of dipped in wasabi-laced soy.
posted by pmbuko at 8:10 PM on November 11, 2008


@FoxyHedgehog: Why do you capitalise "Autistic" and not "Schizophrenic" or "Psychotic"? Is autism more of a cultural identity than schizophrenia or psychosis?
posted by acb at 7:18 AM on November 12, 2008


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