Doesn’t solve the matter I’m afraid

Children are ten times more likely to be diagnosed with autism if they have a brother or sister with the developmental disorder, researchers at King’s College London found.

For the first time, researchers have been able to quantify the risk so that parents can make a decision about extending their families.

In the general population, autism affects approximately 1 in 100 children.

However In the biggest ever study of its kind, academics found the risk is 10.3 times greater if a sibling has the condition. The risk also triples if they have a half-brother or sister and doubles if they have a cousin with autism

We would normally say “Aha! genetics!” at this point. So, therefore it’s not MMR and all that.

However, it all gets a bit more complicated if we’re trying to decide between straight genes and uterine development. There’s a strand of thought that the cause is not in fact straight genes, but rather to do with floods of hormones through the developing brain. And if that is so then the higher likelihood in a second pregnancy is not a killer diagnosis of it all being purely genetic.

Or, of course, if there’s an environmental cause for that flood of hormones then that could be evident on subsequent pregnancies.

The cousins bit does point to genetics, but the second gravidae part is still inconclusive.

All rather complicated and of course I know very little about this. But it does rather interest that there are others looking at gayness and coming to similar conclusions, that it’s about development in the womb not genes. I have a feeling that this is going to become a lot more important, the study of not just genes, but their expression during pregnancy, as an explanation for all sorts of things.

Genes might indeed explain such things as hair colour, eye colour, but more complex things are going to end up being explained (perhaps, see above I know nothing) as the interaction of these with the developmental environment.

14 comments on “Doesn’t solve the matter I’m afraid

  1. I blame the unforeseen consequences of attempts to make modern life perfectly safe.

    For instance the over use of anti bacterial cleaning products actually leads to super resistant bacteria which cause worse diseases than if we were all allowed to gain immunity from minor diseases.

    I suspect it’s something environmental which is increasing the risk, and that something will be promoted by the nannying fussbuckets as the cure to some major modern non-problem.

  2. Autism is a description of behaviour so it may be a result of more than one disease process: whether genetic, environmental, viral or whatever, singly or in combination in different sufferers. The addition of Aspergers muddies things even more but broadens career opportunities for the medical community.

  3. It also says diagnosed. Brothers are likely to have the same doctor making the diagnosis, as well as the same parents pushing for or against their children being labelled this way.

  4. RR of 10 is largely genes, really no two ways about it. Not strictly Mendelian but then most diseases with a genetic component aren’t.

    We’re not talking about males born after the first male having a slightly higher tendency to be raging homos than the first male. Besides you’re looking at a difference in risk there (heterosexual older brother>homosexual younger brother) that demands an unsual explanation of causality, not the possibility of having two children with the same attribute.

    @Ljh, speaking from experience, Asperger’s is a huge benefit if you don’t mind being a bit quirky and can at least occasionally retreat from human company. You can learn the social interaction crap, unlike those poor autistic sods who are mostly too far gone to be any use to themselves. It’s a tragic and very obvious disease, nothing to do with keeping doctors in business.

  5. Incidentally, it’s a truism that it’s the incurable diseases that keep doctors in business. Doesn’t mean the docs are standing in the way of a cure.

  6. BiG I agree classic autism is a profoundly nasty and puzzling disorder but by making a spectrum disorder with Aspergers you’re probably adding even more aetiologies into the mix and medicalising normal social clumsiness.

  7. Firstly, that discovery is far from new and it reports on frequency not likelihood. Autism is not a disease – it is a condition which can arise from several different causes.
    It is beyond reasonable doubt that some individuals are on the autistic spectrum due to genetic factors. It is also beyond reasonable doubt that some are due to birth trauma. There are a number due to other causes.
    Research into autism was handicapped for many years by the assumption on the part of many would-be researchers that autism had a single cause: progress has improved since it was widely recognised that autism is a syndrome defined by its effects rather than its cause.
    In those cases where the first child is on the autistic spectrum due to genetic factors the chance of the second child also being on the spectrum is therefore somewhat more than 10 times the 1 in 140 (14516 in 2 million is *not* 1 in 100 – Tim where is your complaint about sub-editors) risk in the general population but where it is due to another cause the risk should not be significant.

  8. @ ljh
    Asperger’s syndrome lies on the autistic spectrum and there are some examples where it is very difficult to tell whether the individual should be classified as asperger’s or autistic. Those with very mild asperger’s may live out their lives viewed as slightly odd (or, if they are rich, eccentric) *but* this is *not* normal social clumsiness..

  9. @Ljh,

    The problem with psychiatry is that in the absence of objective standards of pathology, particularly as what is pathological to one might be quite tolerable in another*, anything outwith two standard deviations of the mean is defined as abnormal.

    As a complete non-psychiatrist, the boundary between (the recently abolished) Asperger’s and autism is, to me, that the former at least have the opportunity to lead a somewhat normal, productive, and happy life. Some will even learn to make eye contact, some will learn to stop breaking teacups (anyone who can learn both is probably not on the spectrum to start with), while an autistic is pretty much permanently disabled – unable to reliably turn any freakish capacity to a sustained productive end.

    *: for example, masturbation is normal. Masturbating 10 times a day is abnormal. It’s only pathological if that stops you otherwise leading a normal life, which doubtless it would for most but not all.

  10. However In the biggest ever study of its kind, academics found the risk is 10.3 times greater if a sibling has the condition.

    As is the case with infant cot death, although not before some utter fucking charlatan gave expert witness to have some poor woman put away for life on the grounds that having two children die of cot death was statistically almost impossible. What a cunt he was.

  11. @ BiG
    With all due respect, you provide no evidence that you know what you are talking about.
    Some autistic people are capable of productive employment (in fact they are better than neurotypicals at repetitive tasks as the boredom coefficient is superior), many can learn behaviours and some high-functioning autistics can complete a university degree.
    One simple litmus test is that those with asperger’s worry about what other people think of them while autistics do not; the result thereof is that, ceteris paribus, the autistic is *more* likely to be happy.

  12. Tim,

    The womb development stuff that you are talking about is a field of study called epigenetics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics

    The central idea is that the environment can cause a change in genetic expression that can override the standard recessive/dominant model of gene expression.

    It is a fantastically interesting area of research, and suggests a mechanism for explaining some things that have baffled geneticists for years.

    As you also imply, it’s a relatively new idea too—inspired, in fact, by the way in which environmental factors affect the differentiation of stem cells.

    Regards,

    DK

  13. Bloke in Germany,

    I am not cutting down to less than 10 times a day just to keep a Jerry happy.

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