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Autism shares brain signatures with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – but what does this mean for autists?

by | Feb 12, 2018 | News & Views | 0 comments

The Genetic Literacy Project, which curates info on human genetics and biotechnology, has a great interest in autism, and recently published a short article by Nicholette Zeliadt, explaining that autism shares gene expression pathways with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. This backs up an earlier study linking autism and schizophrenia.

The findings are based on a large study of post-mortem brain tissue and appear in the journal ‘Science’; you can find more info HERE.

For Nicholette Zeliadt’s longer article on, click HERE. (Interestingly, reported ten years ago that: “There is growing evidence that autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are likely to involve similar pathways.”)


Brain signatures

Essentially, this new study found that the ‘gene expression patterns’ – or brain signatures – in the brains of autistic people are similar to those brains of people who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

All three conditions show an activation of genes in star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes, and suppression of genes that function at synapses, the junctions between neurons. These cells and junctions are both important for ‘neuronal’ communication, and may have gone ‘awry’ within the individuals with these conditions. The three groups of people may share features in common, such as language problems, irritability and even aggression.

For anyone reading Steve Silberman’s tome,  ‘NeuroTribes : The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently’ – the findings aren’t necessarily a surprise, as autism was once considered a childhood form of schizophrenia, and the author writes extensively about this.

Experts agree that that autism is the result of several genetic variations, some of which can occur spontaneously, while many are passed genetically along the family line.

(Interestingly, the ‘Science’ study also found that the ‘autism brains’ showed a unique increase in the expression of genes specific to immune cells called microglia, which are involved in the function of mitochondria, energy generators and metabolisers for cells. Microglia are also described as scavengers, or a ‘garbage-disposal service’ within the body’s central nervous system.)

What do we do with this news?

But what do we do with this news – and by ‘we’, I mean the general public, as opposed to geneticists! Here are some possible outcomes of this new study:

(1)The obvious links are in the field of identifying genetic risks, in order to ‘affect the outcome’; an ambiguous statement, seen in several articles, that could infer medication, and even pre-natal ‘screening’. (The study author stated that the study: ‘Gives us hope that perhaps we can use these signatures….. to screen for drugs that can reverse them [the signatures].) This conversation of course poses many questions about whether an autistic person is broken and needs fixing at all, or would, in possession of a magic wand, prefer to be neurotypical. And to what extend would they even consider medication, to alter their state?

(2)This work could (in many years from now!) lead to more biological / clinical diagnoses, instead of just observational diagnoses (of autism). With many psychiatric conditions being reportedly misdiagnosed, this could prove useful. The study author stated: “It’s possible that some of these changes might eventually show themselves in the blood, or we might be able to develop new, non-invasive techniques for measuring gene expression in living patients, down the road.”

(3)The study results relating to the immune cells called microglia could correlate with inflammatory mechanisms. Could this information link to alternative therapies which are hypothesised by some people to help individuals improve the symptoms of their neurology (e.g. their autism); for example, therapeutic ozone therapy?

(4)If a therapy is found to be especially useful for one of the three conditions, could it be applied to the others, too?

We’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the study and what it may mean for autistic individuals and those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

A little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.

(Watch a video about autism genetics below).


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