Page URL:

Book Review: The Imprinted Brain - How Genes Set the Balance Between Autism and Psychosis

13 April 2010

The Imprinted Brain: How Genes Set the Balance Between Autism and Psychosis

By Dr Christopher Badcock

Published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers

ISBN-10: 1849050236, ISBN-13: 978-1849050234

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'The Imprinted Brain: How Genes Set the Balance Between Autism and Psychosis' by Dr Christopher Badcock

The Imprinted Brain sets out a startling new theory that could reshape the way we think about the human brain. The central premise is of an evolutionary 'tug-of-war' taking place between genes inherited from your father and genes inherited from your mother. A 'win' for either the father's or the mother's genes could disrupt normal brain functioning, leading to disorders as seemingly disparate as autism and schizophrenia.

The theory is the brainchild of author Dr Christopher Badcock, a sociologist at London School of Economics, and Dr Bernard Crespi, a biologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada. They first published their idea in a series of articles in leading scientific journals, but this is the first book to give an account of their theory.

The book cleverly ties together evidence from genetics, evolutionary biology, psychology and psychiatry to introduce the 'imprinted brain theory'. Briefly, there are a set of genes which are expressed differently depending on whether they are inherited from the mother or the father, known as 'imprinted genes'. The theory holds that disruption to the typical expression of imprinted genes in the brain could result in an 'extreme paternal brain' or an 'extreme maternal brain', leading individuals to develop autism or schizophrenia respectively. This idea is delivered clearly and comprehensively, with reference to recent scientific literature as well as established theories of evolution and animal behaviour.

The imprinted brain theory is not entirely novel: the 'extreme male brain theory of autism' was proposed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen over a decade ago. However, Badcock and Crespi introduce an important caveat, arguing that autism is not just an example of extreme maleness, but directly caused by the overexpression of paternal genes in the brain. To my knowledge, Badcock and Crespi are also the first to interpret schizophrenia as the direct opposite of autism; the consequence of an extreme maternal brain. The novelty of this theory meant that I began the book with some scepticism, but I found the logical, carefully constructed argument extremely compelling.

The book starts with a step-by-step description of autism and Asperger's syndrome, accompanied by engaging accounts and quotes from individuals with these disorders. These personal stories help to break up the text and enhance the reader's understanding of the disorders. Badcock also uses the same device to enliven the descriptions of schizophrenia. The introductory chapters also serve to draw the reader's attention to the opposing traits associated with autism and schizophrenia. One example is of the enhanced visual and spatial skills that are common among individuals with autism, but deficient among schizophrenia patients.

Some symptoms of autism and schizophrenia overlap, which seems to contradict the idea that the two disorders exist at opposite ends of the same spectrum. For example, both disorders are characterised by avoidance of social contact and misunderstanding of other's intentions. Badcock takes this in his stride and argues that, although symptoms can appear similar, they may have different underlying causes. This idea felt like a bit of a stretch initially, as if Badcock were twisting the facts to fit his theory. However, after he expanded on the idea and explored the potential mechanisms that underlie the overlapping symptoms, I became convinced.

The final chapter extends the theory to tackle the subject of genius. Badcock argues that genius, attributed to scholars such as Isaac Newton and John Nash, may arise when the extreme paternal brain and extreme maternal brain co-exist in the same person. He bases this theory on biographical literature, which suggests that Newton and Nash displayed both autistic and schizophrenic traits on different occasions. These historical characters may interest readers and they serve to illustrate an interesting point. However, I felt it could be unwise to make posthumous diagnoses based largely on biographical evidence.

I was left with the impression that genetic evidence to support the imprinted brain theory is currently lacking, so it will be interesting to see whether molecular genetics will bear out the theory in the laboratory. The idea is certainly intriguing and, if validated, could forever change the way we understand normal brain function, as well as two of the most common psychiatric disorders: autism and schizophrenia. This original and exciting theory, presented in an engaging and approachable style, makes the book well worth a read.

Buy The Imprinted Brain: How Genes Set the Balance Between Autism and Psychosis from Amazon UK.

24 October 2011 - by James Brooks 
Genes that other species do not possess may play a crucial role in making the human brain what it is. Until recently scientific consensus held that the different use of genes shared across most of the animal kingdom gave each species' brain its unique character. However this hypothesis may need some revision following a study led by Professor Manyuan Long of the University of Chicago...
8 March 2010 - by Sandy Starr 
In their concluding remarks, all three speakers said the answer to the question implicit in the event's title - if you are genetically predisposed to a neurodevelopmental disorder, does this effectively mean you are marked for life? - is an emphatic 'no'. Nonetheless, they had divergent views on the likelihood of successfully applying the fruits of genetic research into mental health...
21 December 2009 - by Fenno Outen 
Useful research in mental health care has historically been in short supply. Whether the issue is accurate diagnosis of problems, understanding their causes or the delivery of reliable treatment, there remains plenty of room for progress. For example, it is common for clinicians to disagree about diagnoses or for them to be changed on a regular basis. Furthermore a diagnosis provides a relatively poor guide to effective treatment....
23 October 2009 - by Sandy Starr 
The Progress Educational Trust (PET) debate 'From Autism to Asperger's: Disentangling the Genetics and Sociology of the Autistic Spectrum' took place in the UK Houses of Parliament on the evening of 20 October 2009, two days before the Autism Bill received its third and final reading in the House of Lords....
5 October 2009 - by Nienke Korsten 
A variant of the neuregulin 1 gene associated with an increased risk of psychosis, may positively affect the creative capacity of healthy people, scientists from Semmelweis University in Hungary suggest in a recent article in Psychological Science. However, the limitations of this small study mean that more research will be necessary to confirm this preliminary finding....
6 July 2009 - by Dr Will Fletcher 
Thousands of tiny genetic variations that could collectively be responsible for more than a third of the inherited risk of schizophrenia have been identified for the first time. Data was pooled from three separate studies and reanalysed to uncover the results. Further, a common genetic basis was found for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which have previously been considered as separate conditions. The three linked papers describing the research were published together online in the journa...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.