Too much testosterone = autism?
March 2, 2004 8:40 AM   Subscribe

Is testosterone the root cause of autism?
posted by Irontom (22 comments total)
posted by jon_kill at 8:43 AM on March 2, 2004

(sorry for being so wordy, I'm just trying to keep up with the flow of discourse around here, officer)
posted by jon_kill at 8:43 AM on March 2, 2004

This is an extremely interesting FPP... I find the attitude of the other researchers mentioned rather disturbing however. Since when do we start discounting a strong opinion simply on the basis that it would logically seem to not apply to 10% of cases (but still may)?

Is political correctness succeeding in killing off science because science doesn't care about the socio-political implications of simple facts?
posted by clevershark at 8:52 AM on March 2, 2004

Clevershark: excellent point.

Also, note this quote: "If further research substantiates Mr. Baron-Cohen's testosterone hypothesis, he says, it would revolutionize the way in which autism is understood and initially diagnosed, possibly opening the door to far earlier intervention with intensive behavioral therapies. But it would also "open up an ethical can of worms with regard to terminations of pregnancy as well. ... I mean, what would be lost, as well as gained, by that?" he asks."

Great, more aborted kids. It's upsetting how much research into autism (both gov't-sponsored and not) and how many "treatments" for autism really involve researching ways to diagnose it in utero. The kids aren't treated for autism, they're just never born.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:04 AM on March 2, 2004

jon_kill obviously didn't read the first link very carefully, that hydroxyl group clearly shows the answer is maybe, not yes.

All kidding aside, the researcher in question, like his chum Steven Pinker, seems to politicizing themselves from the start (e.g. the book called "The Essential Difference").

Those of us who haven't read the book or his other research obviously can't condemn it, but I do get very wary when I see a scientist talking in absolutes and giving overly simplified answers to complex behaviors and conditions. The "E-Type" "S-Type" thing just sounds like a crock, as, of coruse, is the idea of drawing any conclusions about testerone or even male-specific "hard wiring" from behavorial study.

In other words, a researcher who published research saying "Testerone appears to play a key role in autism" would get a very different reaction from this one who is saying "Testerone appears to play a key role in autism, and testerone is connected with empathy, which is the essential difference between men and women".

He's making bold frankly editorial claims on research that hasn't even been replicated significantly.
posted by malphigian at 9:12 AM on March 2, 2004

It's Baron-Cohen, not his opponents, who has turned his scientific results into a science-versus-PC thing, in his popular writings and interviews. If he'd just published scientific papers about testosterone's effect on autism, this debate would not be happening. He gave one interview where he said that the extreme female brain wouldn't necessarily be a problem, since someone with that brain type could just look cute and get someone to fix her car. I think that's a pretty clear indication of where he's coming from - why wouldn't someone with an extreme female brain, in his system, be, say, a brilliant politician who could sense her opponents' feelings almost before they do?

When one of the newsweeklies ran a story about his theories with a quiz purporting to measure how autistic someone is, one of the questions was something like "I can tell when others are bored with what I'm saying." I realized that I've always been bad at that, but over the years I've learned to err on the side of assuming that they are. Women who are taught that social acceptance is the most important thing may be able to compensate for a poor grasp of nonverbal cues with learned behavior.
posted by transona5 at 9:14 AM on March 2, 2004

I suspect this is probably the quiz you are referring to transona5.
posted by chill at 9:47 AM on March 2, 2004

Is political correctness succeeding in killing off science because science doesn't care about the socio-political implications of simple facts? --clevershark

I'm not sure if it's actual PC or perceived PC, to be honest. People are desperate to find out what causes autism and if it can be treated...because it appears to be almost epidemic at this point. However, real research includes a lot of standards to which this premise has not been subjected. Even he admits that he can't draw any real conclusions.

This strikes me as just grandstanding in order to sell his latest book, holding out one more false beacon of hope to the families dealing with autism.
posted by dejah420 at 9:55 AM on March 2, 2004

The kids aren't treated for autism, they're just never born.

And what is wrong with that?
posted by rough ashlar at 10:21 AM on March 2, 2004

I can't see that quiz with the Flash, but I think the one I took was different - it didn't give you an "EQ" or "SQ", just a number that, the higher it was, the more autistic tendencies you were supposed to have. I'm not sure if it was developed by Baron-Cohen or just a standard diagnostic. I remember scoring a lot higher than the average person, but not enough for it to label me autistic.
posted by transona5 at 10:23 AM on March 2, 2004

Why are people so vehemently opposed to Baron-Cohen's thesis? Is it because it's bad science, or he's drawing unwarranted conclusions, or that the conclusions may be disturbing? I ask this from simple curiosity.

I've seen a couple of lectures given by Baron-Cohen which were fairly persuasive in the existence of a broad spectrum of empathising/systemising, upon which there are different distributions of males and females, and that these different distributions are apparent from just after birth. I haven't seen anything that has disproved his hypothesis (of which there were many, and of high quality) which provided the evidence for this - of course, I'm aware that he could still be disproved. But if it is true, and that very generally speaking, females are better than males at empathising, and the reverse with systemising, so what? Why is this a problem?

Of course, so far this has nothing to do with autism. However, the idea that autism is strong form of a systemising mind is very seductive. Finally, whether or not testosterone is an important factor in determining someone's position on the E/S spectrum is not something I want to comment on because I haven't seen the research, and I suspect neither have many other people here. However, from what I know of Baron-Cohen, for him to state that testosterone plays a role means he must have some strong evidence.

(Yes, this is not a good reason. He could be totally wrong on testosterone. But let us evaluate the evidence for it first).

dejah420: I suppose you could look at it as being another false beacon of hope. You could also look at it as being another hypothesis that has a not insignificant chance of being true, and leading to a treatment. Baron-Cohen is not the kind of guy who would make spurious claims just to sell a book - he doesn't need to do that, and the amount of work and dedication he's put into researching autism and helping autists suggests to me that he wouldn't want to, either.

Disclaimer: Baron-Cohen was my undergrad supervisor at Cambridge.
posted by adrianhon at 10:45 AM on March 2, 2004

"...and a wider understanding of the autism spectrum." Once again doctors change "we don't know what it is" into a syndrome, now a spectrum. How far are we going to wander from reality?

Maybe this is just another attempt to woosify the American Male.
posted by ewkpates at 10:46 AM on March 2, 2004

(whoops - when I said 'disproved his hypothesis (of which there were many...' what I meant was 'disproved his experiments...')

Malphigian: Clearly the E/S spectrum is a vast simplification of the reality of the issue, just as much as 'IQ' is of human intelligence, but you have to start somewhere, even if it is horribly fuzzy and noisy.

Also, I think we are jumping to conclusions about Baron-Cohen's 'conclusions'. I haven't read his book, but the article doesn't make it seem like he thinks he's proved that testosterone causes autism, e.g. 'he admits the evidence for any relationship between fetal testosterone and autism has yet to be established.'
posted by adrianhon at 10:53 AM on March 2, 2004

He's drawing sweeping social conclusions from a study that, were it allowed to stand on its own merits, would be far less controversial. Testosterone is sometimes given to women with lack of sexual function - that's not controversial, but if you published a book arguing that a normal female sex drive is actually a "male" characteristic, it would be.
posted by transona5 at 11:21 AM on March 2, 2004

The kids aren't treated for autism, they're just never born.

As the parent of an autistic child, I will come right out and say that I do not hold out any hope at all for autism to ever be cured. The most I expect is that someday the root cause of autism will be identified, thus leading to appropriate preventative methods. At best we will be able to find better treatments and therapies to help autistics compensate for their deficits and become better adapted to function in society. That is no more a cure than sign language is a cure for the deaf and dumb.

As for this researcher's theory, it at least makes enough sense to be worth exploring. My gut feeling is that there are a variety of factors that lead to autism. There seems to be a strong genetic component, but there also appears to be at least one and possibly several environmental triggers. Too much or too little of some particular hormone, released too soon or too late, combined with a genetic disposition... that makes sense to me. So yes, a heavy testosterone bath seems at least plausible and worth further research.
posted by Lokheed at 11:55 AM on March 2, 2004

Baron-Cohen is making inferences by looking at a symptom or common trait. If we're making guesses, seems to be that there should be more interest in why more first borns are autistic or are greater affected than younger siblings. An environmental assault is more likely; whether this happens inutero (where the accumulation of the mother's toxins is dumped to the foetus) or the camel's back is broken by just one more vaccine is difficult to study. Often times the body of an autist has difficulty releasing the toxins and it is known that oestrogen has an oxidative effect (think toxins and Parkinsons; it is known that oestrogen is considered a protective factor in this disease). Maybe testosterone shouldn't so much be implicated as a cause, but a lack of oestrogen.
posted by Feisty at 3:01 PM on March 2, 2004

duh, obviously. What I'm wondering his how to find the point where extra testosteron caues 'mathimatical genious' without causing 'over agressivnes' and autism.
posted by delmoi at 3:08 PM on March 2, 2004

[...] a brilliant politician [...]

Now there's an oxymoron.

The kids aren't treated for autism, they're just never born.

This might be bad. What if autism/aspergers is not a disease, but the first (sometimes errant) steps on a new evolutional path? Will aborting autistic-spectrum fetuses slowly but surely turn our species into dimwitted-but-empathic incompetents who's only real skill is being able to 'work and play well with others'?

Is political correctness succeeding in killing off science because science doesn't care about the socio-political implications of simple facts?

I guess at some point we have to ask ourselves wether we want fuzzy-cuddly feelgood stuff that might be wrong, or hard, cold, useful facts.
I'm sorry if this sounds caustics, but that's really the choice - opinions that placate our fellow humans can not substitute knowledge about reality.

On a more abstract plane, one can see this as lofty ideals versus knowledge gathering - societies that have put their ideals above reality seldom prosper for long:
For example, had not the 3. reich forced partially-Jewish Einstein to flee, the world might have looked very different today. (Sorry for the goodwin-derail, but I really could not think of a more fitting example).
posted by spazzm at 5:27 PM on March 2, 2004

If we're making guesses, seems to be that there should be more interest in why more first borns are autistic or are greater affected than younger siblings.

Maybe it's because first borns are more often male?

Rest of article here. (Scroll down to figure 3).
posted by spazzm at 5:36 PM on March 2, 2004

Once again doctors change "we don't know what it is" into a syndrome, now a spectrum. How far are we going to wander from reality?

You seem to be confusing "we don't understand it, but we know it exists" with "we don't know what it is, so let's pretend we do", these are not the same thing. A syndrome is a set of symptoms which predictably occur together (like the coarse hair, thick tongue and epicanthal folds in a person with Down Syndrome) - we see a set of symptoms which occur together over and over again, that's a syndrome, so we give it a name, not least because it's logical to assume that things which occur together predictably are somehow related to each other. I'm not sure what course of action you'd prefer researchers to take, or what language you'd like them to use - defining and naming things (and redefining and renaming things) is a necessary part of researching them. The "reality" is that autism occurs as a set of predictable symptoms, therefore it's a syndrome. The "reality" is also that the symptoms associated with the syndrome of autism also occur with varying degrees of severity, therefore it exists on a spectrum. The predictable set of symptoms which occur on a spectrum of severity which we call "autism" exist, and are very likely related to each other, whatever you choose to call them, they exist, and I see no benefit to pretending otherwise.
posted by biscotti at 6:36 PM on March 2, 2004

Ha! Biscotti, and this is where I have you by your pleasantly crunchy nuttiness: I think its fab that we group characteristics into syndromes, that's fine. But are these grouped characteristics also symptoms? Maybe, maybe not. And we definitely don't know how to treat syndromes. We can't be sure if characteristics are symptoms, so we shouldn't be treating them, or making claims about their inter-relationship.

Down's syndrome is characterized by coarse hair, but conditioner isn't going to help at all. Yet treatment of characteristics because they are mistaken for symptoms is all too common. A syndrome isn't necessarily made up of "like" elements causally, some of them may be caused by each other or some combination thereof, rather than being caused by the problem. Syndrome is rightly a research term, but its more and more becoming a treatment term.

Maybe we aren't disagreeing, maybe I was preemptive ranting.
posted by ewkpates at 5:55 AM on March 3, 2004

And we definitely don't know how to treat syndromes.

I don't know about that. At one level, we know how to treat Down's syndrome -- fix the genetic trisomy in utero as early as possible. We just don't have the technology to do that, yet.

But it's not like what the problem is is an utter unknown for all syndromes.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:17 AM on March 3, 2004

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