Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Similarities Among the Differences: Genetic Research, Autism and Schizophrenia

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Intern

Brendan McLean, NAMI communications intern
It may not be one of the conditions you expect to hear about from NAMI, but autism has many concerns that overlap with some of the illnesses we discuss more frequently, especially schizophrenia. They are sometimes treated with the same or similar antipsychotic drugs. They may even share a genetic marker. Taking a look at the state of autism research can shed some light on the genetic issues that affect the mental health community overall.

Mitochondria: Differences on a Cellular Level

Many mental illnesses have had their magic cure or culprit, with autism being no exception—childhood vaccines have gotten a great deal of publicity as a possible cause of the disorder.With the connection between vaccinations and autism discredited, or shown to be extremely isolated, it was necessary for researchers to begin searching in another direction for the cause of autism. This past month a new study released in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Cecilia Giulivi from the University of California, Davis, showed promise in helping identify at least one cause of autism: differences in mitochondria.

Mitochondria, the cell’s powerpacks, disassemble sugar molecules and turn the newly released energy into a form that the body can use. Defects in the mitochondria may explain the onset and severity of autism in some children. Mitochondrial dysfunction has already been shown to play a role in the development of other neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s diseases, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Dr. Giulivi found that the mitochondria in children with severe autism, compared to a control group of children than did not have autism, consumed far less oxygen , a sign of lower cell activity and leaked damaging oxygen-rich chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide, which exists at levels twice the norm because is not cleaned up by enzymes as it would in normal cells.

Genetic Similarities and Beyond
The sample size for this study was extremely small— only 10 children with severe autism. It is also not certain precisely when or why the mitochondria dysfunction starts, whether in the womb or later on in infancy, or related to genetic factors or environmental factors. These questions have also dogged mental illness research, with scientists now theorizing that schizophrenia is the result of the interaction between several possible genetic and environmental factors.

A recent comparison of the genetics behind autism and schizophrenia found that while some of the genetic differences for the two conditions might occur in the same sites, in one disorder certain proteins are overproduced while in the other the opposite is true. The more we learn about conditions like autism, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, the more we realize that the distinctions between them are not always clear.

Autism has recently been re-categorized as a spectrum disorder, giving rise to the idea of multiple autisms rather than one. Similarly, there is currently a movement within the research community to reclassify schizophrenia as a syndrome in order to allow for a greater variation among people living with the condition, some of whom might share characteristics with other conditions like depression or bipolar disorder.

It is important to note that similarities do not only exist between people living with autism, schizophrenia or any mental illness—on a genetic level we are all more alike than different, with 99.9 percent of DNA the same in every person. As our understanding of the genetic basis of conditions like autism expands, we may find that the one-tenth of a percent that is genetically different in all of us has some unsuspected similarities, allowing us to discover knowledge that helps develop treatments for other mental illnesses.

7 comments:

Phyllis Wheeler said...

I write about my son who has Asperger's and our treatments using the Yasko protocol on <a href="http://phylliswheeler.com/CuringAutismBlog/?p=331 >Curing Autism Blog </a>

I see a definite relationship between the Yasko protocol, which specifies food supplements intended to get mitochondrial cycles going the way they are supposed to, and this research showing a link between mitochondria problems and autism/schizophrenia.

This protocol has helped my son immensely.

I think autism is caused when a person with a genetic predisposition encounters an environmental trigger. I wish research would look harder at possible environmental triggers. With one child in 100 affected now, it's an emergency, and we can probably change the environment easier than the genetics. Plus, the genetics have always been with us, and aren't causing this epidemic.

Ms. Crabapple said...

We only become classified as mentally ill, when we are too different for others to avoid noticing.

The brain, and how it functions to produce personality, is way more complex than people would like to think. I don't think it will be soon that its workings will be wholly understood.
Thank goodness that in the past century, medications were found that at least treat symptoms, making lives better for millions, and for society as well.

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MMC said...

Well unfortunately there is so much more focus on trying to find genetics and debunking the vaccine explanation of autism rather than services for people on the autism spectrum. I hope NAMI will do more to educate people on this condition since it is often comorbid or confused with other mental health conditions.

PSKL said...

Please check out my semi-autobiographical account of a young man's struggles with bipolar disorder and his descent into madness:

http://newmanx.blogspot.com/2010/10/chapter-i-sunday.html

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your work and research into Autism. I'm glad to see someone at NAMI has gone into this area of Autism since so many only concentrate on "mental" health issues and forgetting nuerlogical differences and developmental differences. It is almost (imo) that if you don't have a mental health diagnosis, that is a bad thing. I'm wondering why NAMI only talked about "children" with Autism, since children DO grow up and people do not grow out of Autism. See it here: http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=Helpline1&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=65961

Kathy said...

I find the differences and similarities between different mental illnesses fascinating. I have read articles where drugs approved for other illnesses, such as schizophrenia, may end up helping those with autism. There are so many different theories to the casuation of autism, but I think it might be a little different for everyone. Of course, different therapies work for different people, too. I came across this article on what to look for in a therapist for someone with autism, and it also includes other strategies for dealing with autism. The article is at http://www.aspergerssociety.org/articles/68.htm . I think in the future we will see all sorts of different treatments for autism, depending on the different subsets of autism that are diagnosed.

purpl brightcloud said...

iwas treated by lane co. mental health services for years with neuro-genic psych drugs;i detoxed four years ago,have been villified and preyed upon,condemned by all and stygmatised by my labeling as a schizophrenic.recently i actually obtained psychiatric services through veterans medical services only to finally discover that i was affected by PTSD.my recovery process continues,i am recovering from the bungling ineptitude of people who understand less of psychology than i do...purpl brightcloud,inspirational videographer(oakridge,or.)