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Chromosomal Mishaps in Autism Harbor Schizophrenia Candidate Genes

22 May 2012. Abnormal rearrangements of chromosome pieces can provide some useful genetic leads in neurodevelopmental disorders, according to a study published 27 April in Cell. Led by James Gusella of Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, the study sequenced regions of balanced chromosomal abnormalities (BCAs) that had been found in people with neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, to precisely pinpoint the genes disrupted. This turned up 33 genes, 22 of which were new to these disorders, and seven of which have links to schizophrenia. The findings reinforce hypotheses that autism and schizophrenia have genetic links (see SRF related news story), and suggest that how a gene is disrupted may influence which disorder develops.

BCAs result when chromosomes break and reattach in the wrong position during cell division, and include inversions (a broken piece reattaches in the wrong orientation), insertions (a broken piece embeds itself into the wrong chromosome), and translocations (different chromosomes exchange broken bits). BCAs are typically detected microscopically with a karyotype (see SRF related news story), but to get at which genes, if any, are disrupted by these rearrangements requires higher resolution of the regions of breakage and reattachment, called breakpoints. For example, the breakpoints of a translocation between chromosomes 1 and 11 in a Scottish family beset by schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders led researchers to DISC1 (see SRF related news story). However, the microarrays that currently dominate the search for structural variation miss BCAs.

The new study gets down to nucleotide resolution by targeting and sequencing the BCA breakpoints, which in most cases pointed to a single gene or regulatory region. This locus precision complements other strategies for finding disease-related variation, such as the more common copy number variation (CNV)—the deletion or duplication of multigene-sized chunks of DNA—and exome sequencing, which examines only protein coding regions.

Broken genes
First author Michael Talkowski and colleagues began with 38 individuals already flagged as BCA carriers by karyotyping. Half of the subjects were diagnosed with autism, and the other half with a neurodevelopmental disorder, which for some included features of autism. The researchers applied a series of techniques to locate the BCAs. This included the use of “jumping libraries,” in which the researchers cut each genome into relatively long fragments (up to 4.5 kb), then sequenced short stretches at the ends. The fragments could then be used as a kind of molecular tape measure: if the end sequences match to places in a reference sequence that are closer together or farther apart than the fragment length, then that fragment must contain extra DNA or missing DNA, respectively (Talkowski et al., 2011).

Sequencing then divulged the genes disrupted by the BCAs—if a gene was not specifically hit, the researchers looked for expression changes in genes near the breakpoint in banked lymphoblast cells for most of the subjects, which could indicate disturbance of a regulatory region. This strategy highlighted 33 loci, including genes already associated with autism (e.g., AUTS2, FOXP1, and CDKL5), genes responsible for the phenotype in known microdeletion syndromes (e.g., MBD5), completely novel genes (e.g., KIRREL3, ZNF507, CHD8), and several genes associated with schizophrenia, including TCF4, ZNF804A, GRIN2B, ANK3, PDE10A, and EHMT1.

Though BCAs occur at a sixfold higher frequency in autism than in controls, and 36 out of 38 BCAs identified in this study were de novo, the researchers sought extra evidence for the involvement of these genes in the disorder. Given the rarity of BCAs, they turned to CNVs, analyzing data from 19,556 cases with a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders (including 25 percent with autism) and 13,991 controls. This revealed that cases with neurodevelopmental disorders carried CNVs that included the 33 loci flagged by BCAs more often than controls did (p = 2.07 x 10-47, OR = 5.12). Based on analyses of individual genes, the researchers offered some evidence that for 21 of these genes, CNVs were overrepresented in cases versus controls (either p <0.10, or when numbers were too low for adequate statistical power, at least three CNVs in cases and none in controls); this group included all the genes mentioned above, except for ANK3. Analyzed by category, there was a collective increase in CNV burden for the genes already associated with autism (p = 7.74 x 10-20, OR = 3.6), the genes contributing to microdeletion syndrome phenotypes (p = 1.64 x 10-26, OR = 10.2), the 22 genes new to autism and neurodevelopmental disorders (p = 2.21 x 10-15, OR = 4.1), and the genes associated with psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia (p = 5.1 x 10-15, OR = 6.7).

In the commons
Linking autism to genes in this last category raises the question of how the same genes confer risk for different disorders. These genes have been associated with schizophrenia through genomewide association studies (GWAS) and candidate gene studies of common variants, which suggests that how a gene is disrupted may matter. For example, common variants that subtly alter gene function might increase risk for one disorder, whereas wholesale inactivation of the same gene by BCAs or CNVs might result in a different disorder.

To explore the contributions of common variation in these BCA-identified genes, the researchers turned to GWAS datasets for schizophrenia and autism. In the largest-to-date schizophrenia GWAS dataset (see SRF related news story), they found that people with schizophrenia had an enrichment of GWAS-determined risk alleles in the BCA-identified genes compared to other parts of the genome (p = 0.0009). A similar enrichment was not found in GWAS datasets for Crohn’s disease and other traits. On the other hand, they also found an enrichment of risk alleles in these genes in the datasets for two autism GWAS (Wang et al., 2009; Weiss et al., 2009). Though this does not jibe with the notion that a simple distinction between common and rare variants dictates which disorder develops, it does show that a palette of variation in these genes contributes to diverse brain disorders, and argues that functional annotation of these genes and their variants is paramount.

That many genes in this study had already been associated with other disorders gives a vote of confidence to pursuing these oddball BCAs, and suggests that the new genes will also be relevant: indeed, last month one of these, CHD8, was fingered in a sequencing study of the autism exome (see SRF related news story). The overlap between schizophrenia and autism genes also supports the notion that even adult-onset psychiatric diseases stem from aberrant neurodevelopment, and suggests that chasing down the biology of these genes will point to key processes in brain development.—Michele Solis.

Talkowski ME, Rosenfeld JA, Blumenthal I, Pillalamarri V, Chiang C, Heilbut A, Ernst C, Hanscom C, Rossin E, Lindgren AM, Pereira S, Ruderfer D, Kirby A, Ripke S, Harris DJ, Lee JH, Ha K, Kim HG, Solomon BD, Gropman AL, Lucente D, Sims K, Ohsumi TK, Borowsky ML, Loranger S, Quade B, Lage K, Miles J, Wu BL, Shen Y, Neale B, Shaffer LG, Daly MJ, Morton CC, Gusella JF. Sequencing Chromosomal Abnormalities Reveals Neurodevelopmental Loci that Confer Risk across Diagnostic Boundaries. Cell. 2012 Apr 27;149(3):525-37. Abstract

Comments on News and Primary Papers
Comment by:  Ben Pickard
Submitted 23 May 2012
Posted 24 May 2012

The paper by Talkowski and colleagues describes the application of cutting edge genomics techniques to the molecular characterisation of multiple balanced chromosomal abnormalities (BCAs) linked to autism, autism spectrum disorders, and general neurodevelopmental disorders. In a single publication it has probably assigned more candidate genes than the entire conventional cytogenetic output from schizophrenia and autism in the preceding 15 years.

The authors carry out a great deal of complementary genomic analyses which add to the strength of their argument that these genes are indeed causally involved in illness. Without these additional data there would be one potential criticism of the paper in that the same power of analysis was not applied to BCAs in healthy controls. This is an important ascertainment issue because previous studies have not only identified disrupted genes in the healthy population (Baptista et al., 2005) but also shown that CNVs deregulating specific genes may only show an increased—as opposed to exclusive—representation in the ill population.

The observed overlaps between some of the identified BCA genes in ASD/neurodevelopmental disorders and those identified in GWAS studies of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is fascinating but may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, support for rare genetic contributors (CNVs/sequence variants/BCAs) to complex genetic disorders has often been drawn from those that are co-incident between studies. In that respect, this study is remarkable for highlighting the same genes from methods that detect very different mutation types. I’m genuinely surprised that there appears to be a convergence of ancient (read subject to evolutionary selection/population effects) and recent (meaning random) mutations. On the other hand, there is the disconcerting possibility that schizophrenia GWAS are only powered to detect the causes of blunt neurodevelopmental disturbances (which are perhaps less sensitive to issues of diagnostic categorisation) and not the fine-grained genetic hits that determine a precise clinical endpoint. If this is the case then we could end up with a situation where the genotypic distance between disorders is apparently much less than the phenotypic distance. This is most likely an extreme outcome that will be remedied once the genomic analysis of complex genetic disorders is able to factor in the composite effects of BCAs, CNVs, rare SNPs, and common SNPs—at the level of the single individual, and perhaps conditioned on the presence of big neurodevelopmental hits.

Quite logically, the presence of genes spanning diagnoses has been explained in terms of shared predisposition derived from early neurodevelopmental insults that are subsequently pushed down diagnostic pathways by other genetic or environmental factors. However, this assumption needs formal testing. The problem is reminiscent of the debate that circled the early use of constitutive mouse knockouts: how is it possible to disentangle developmental from adult functional phenotypes in a null? The advent of inducible Cre-LoxP technologies allowed that question to be directly addressed and may be the means to test the neurodevelopmental contribution of diagnosis-spanning candidate genes such as TCF4.

Could the approach detailed in this paper be applied directly to schizophrenia? It would certainly add substantially to the ‘confirmed’ gene list and would detect any reciprocal relationships with ASD/neurodevelopmental disorders. One issue is that ASD appears to have a higher overall incidence of chromosomal and genomic structural rearrangements than schizophrenia, but perhaps the greater question is availability of an appropriate sample set. The concerted cytogenetic screening that took place in Scotland coupled with an ability to cross-reference these findings with incidence of psychiatric disorder was instrumental in the discovery of DISC1 and other genes in Scotland (Muir et al., 2008) but this resource is now largely exhausted of relevant BCAs. To my knowledge, the Danish registry represents the best bet for such an approach to succeed for schizophrenia (Bache et al., 2006).


Baptista J, Prigmore E, Gribble SM, Jacobs PA, Carter NP, Crolla JA. Molecular cytogenetic analyses of breakpoints in apparently balanced reciprocal translocations carried by phenotypically normal individuals. Eur J Hum Genet. 2005 Nov;13(11):1205-12. Abstract

Muir WJ, Pickard BS, Blackwood DH. Disrupted-in-Schizophrenia-1. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2008 Apr;10(2):140-7. Abstract

Bache I, Hjorth M, Bugge M, Holstebroe S, Hilden J, Schmidt L, Brondum-Nielsen K, Bruun-Petersen G, Jensen PK, Lundsteen C, Niebuhr E, Rasmussen K, Tommerup N. Systematic re-examination of carriers of balanced reciprocal translocations: a strategy to search for candidate regions for common and complex diseases. Eur J Hum Genet. 2006 Apr;14(4):410-7. Abstract

View all comments by Ben PickardComment by:  Patrick Sullivan, SRF AdvisorJin Szatkiewicz
Submitted 29 May 2012
Posted 29 May 2012
  I recommend the Primary Papers

In this exceptional paper, the authors combined new technology with old-school genomics to deliver convergent data about the genomic regions that predispose to neuropsychiatric disorders. The first goal of psychiatric genetics is to identify the “parts list,” an enumeration of the genes and genetic loci whose alteration clearly and unequivocally alters risk. The results of this intriguing paper connect rare and powerful genomic disruptions with loci identified via common variant genomewide association screens.

A classical approach in human genetics is to study affected individuals with balanced translocations. Using next-generation sequencing, these authors identified the precise locations of 38 rare balanced chromosomal abnormalities in subjects with neurodevelopmental disorders. They identified 33 disrupted genes, of which 22 were novel risk loci for autism and neurodevelopmental disorders. The other disrupted genes included many that had previously been identified by genomic searches for rare variation and common variation (e.g., AUTS2, CHD8, TCF4, and ZNF804A).

The authors then sought secondary genomic support for disease association with these 33 risk loci by analyzing a large collection of psychiatric GWAS data. They found an increased burden of copy number variants (CNVs) among cases as well as a significant enrichment of common risk alleles among both autism and schizophrenia cases. This research suggests that autism and neurodevelopmental disorders may have commonalities with psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia at the molecular level, underscoring the complexity of genetic contribution to these conditions.

CNVs discovered from microarrays are mainly large, rare CNVs spanning multiple genes. Exome sequencing is limited to coding regions of the genome. In contrast, as illustrated in Talkowski et al. (2012), it is possible to identify individual lesions with nucleotide resolution in both coding and non-coding regions. Thus, this research suggests that sequencing individuals with pathogenic balanced translocations could provide a complementary strategy for mutation identification and gene discovery.

The experimental procedures were technically well done; all BCA breakpoints were confirmed by PCR and capillary sequencing. In seeking the secondary genomic support, the authors were keen on evaluating and eliminating the possibility for any confounding factors that may cause spurious association. For example, CNV burden analysis was conducted with respect to differential sensitivities from microarrays, and all results remained robust to various subset analyses and to one million simulations designed to establish empirical significance. To examine the potential for spurious enrichment of common risk alleles, the authors additionally conducted identical analysis in phenotype-permuted datasets from well-powered GWAS data for schizophrenia and autism as well as in well-powered GWAS data for eight unrelated traits, and therefore eliminated unforeseen confounders.

Impressively, many of the loci identified here now have convergent genomic results with support across multiple different samples and technical approaches. For example, TCF4 harbors common variation identified via GWAS, a Mendelian disorder, and now a gene disruption. These convergent genomic results markedly increase confidence that TCF4 is truly in the “parts list” for neurodevelopmental disorders. In contrast, there remain multiple questions about the genomic evidence for DISC1, where such convergence has not been achieved.

This paper also provides important results relevant to resolving the rare “versus” common variation debate. This appears to be a false dichotomy where, often, both rare and common variations contribute to the parts lists for these disorders.

View all comments by Patrick Sullivan
View all comments by Jin SzatkiewiczComment by:  Bernard Crespi
Submitted 29 May 2012
Posted 29 May 2012
  I recommend the Primary Papers

Balanced chromosomal abnormalities (BCAs) provide extremely useful alterations for linking of specific loci with psychiatric conditions, because they exert penetrant effects and localize to specific genes. The recent study by Talkowski et al. (2012) used direct sequencing of breakpoints, based on 38 subjects, to generate a set of genes with putative links to different neurodevelopmental disorders, broadly construed as including autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disability, and/or developmental and other delays.

One of the most striking results from their study was the presence, in their set of breakpoint-altered genes, of five genes that have been associated from other work with schizophrenia and related psychotic-affective spectrum disorders (such as bipolar disorder and major depression), including TCF4, ZNF804A, PDE10A, GRIN2B, and ANK3. These results suggest, according to the authors, the presence of shared genetic etiology for ASD, schizophrenia, and other neurodevelopmental disorders (mainly developmental delays). The authors also show overlap of their gene list with results from CNV and GWAS of autism and schizophrenia, further suggesting genetic links between these two conditions.

Do these results mean that autism and schizophrenia share genetic risk factors? Perhaps, but also perhaps not. Two important caveats apply.

First, schizophrenia involves well-documented premorbidity, in a substantial proportion of cases, that centers on developmental, social, and language deficits and delays (e.g., Saracco-Alvarez et al., 2009; Gibson et al., 2010). In children, premorbidity to schizophrenia most commonly involves "negative" symptoms, including deficits in social interaction (Remschmidt et al., 1994; Tandon et al., 2009), which can overlap with symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (Goldstein et al., 2002; Sheitman et al., 2004; Tjordman, 2008; King and Lord, 2011). Males are more severely affected, as in autism (Sobin et al., 2001; Rapoport et al., 2009; Tandon et al., 2009). Schizophrenia mediated by CNVs, or BCAs, is likely to exhibit relatively high levels of premorbidity, due to the penetrant, syndromic, and deleterious nature of these alterations (Bassett et al., 2010; Vassos et al., 2010). A recent study by Sahoo et al. (Sahoo et al., 2011) provides evidence consistent with such premorbidity, in that of over 38,000 individuals (predominantly children) referred for developmental delay, intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorders, or multiple congenital anomalies, 704 exhibited one of seven CNVs (del 1q21.1, dup 1q21.1, del 15q11.2, del 15q13.3, dup 16p11.2, dup 16p13.11, and del 22q11.2) that have been statistically associated with schizophrenia in studies of adults (Levinson et al., 2011).

These findings suggest that the subjects in Talkowski et al. (Talkowski et al., 2012), (most of them children, for individuals with age data given) who harbor alterations to schizophrenia-associated genes may, in fact, be severely premorbid for schizophrenia. Diagnoses of ASD (commonly PDD-NOS) in such individuals may represent either false positives (Eliez, 2007 ; Feinstein and Singh, 2007), or true positives, with ASD as a developmental stage followed, in some individuals, by schizophrenia. This latter conceptualization considers autism as akin to childhood schizophrenia, a view which contrasts sharply with the classic criteria derived from Kanner (Kanner, 1943), Asperger (1991) and Rutter (Rutter, 2000, Rutter, 1972, Rutter, 1978), who consider autism as a lifelong condition present from early childhood. Of course, diagnosing premorbidity to schizophrenia as such is challenging, but if any data can help, it is data from highly penetrant alterations such as CNVs and BCAs, as well as from biological and neurological (rather than just behavioral) phenotypes.

Second, association to an overlapping set of genes need not make two disorders similar, or similar in their genetic etiology. For example, as noted by Talkowski et al. (Talkowski et al., 2012), variation in TCF4 has been associated with both Pitt-Hopkins syndrome and schizophrenia, but these conditions show essentially no overlap in phenotypes. Similar considerations apply to CACNA1C, linked to the autism-associated Timothy syndrome (via an apparent gain of function) as well as to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. A key to sorting out the huge clinical and genetic heterogeneity in autism, and in schizophrenia, is subsetting of cases by similarity in alterations to pathways and phenotypes. Lumping of autism with schizophrenia, based on overlap in risk loci without consideration of the nature of the overlap, will make such subsetting all the more difficult.

Data on genes disrupted by balanced translocations are tremendously useful, but their usefulness will, as for other data such as CNVs, be circumscribed by diagnostic considerations, especially when the subjects are children. Bearing in mind the possibility that some childhood diagnoses may represent false positives, and that overlap in genes need not mean overlap in causation, should help in moving the study of both autism and schizophrenia forward.


Asperger H; translated and annotated by Frith U (1991) [1944]. Autistic psychopathy' in childhood. In Frith, U. Autism and Asperger syndrome. Cambridge University Press. pp. 37-92.

Bassett AS, Scherer SW, Brzustowicz LM. Copy number variations in schizophrenia: critical review and new perspectives on concepts of genetics and disease. Am J Psychiatry. 2010;167(8):899-914. Abstract

Eliez S. Autism in children with 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2007;46(4):433-4. Abstract

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Gibson CM, Penn DL, Prinstein MJ, Perkins DO, Belger A. Social skill and social cognition in adolescents at genetic risk for psychosis. Schizophr Res. 2010;122(1-3):179-84. Abstract

Kanner L. 1968;2:217–250. Abstract

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Levinson DF, Duan J, Oh S, Wang K, Sanders AR, Shi J, et al., Copy number variants in schizophrenia: confirmation of five previous findings and new evidence for 3q29 microdeletions and VIPR2 duplications. Am J Psychiatry. 2011;168(3):302-16. Abstract

Rapoport J, Chavez A, Greenstein D, Addington A, Gogtay N. Autism spectrum disorders and childhood-onset schizophrenia: clinical and biological contributions to a relation revisited. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2009;48(1):10-8. Abstract

Remschmidt HE, Schulz E, Martin M, Warnke A, Trott GE. Childhood-onset schizophrenia: history of the concept and recent studies. Schizophr Bull. 1994;20(4):727-45. Abstract

Rutter ML. Relationships between child and adult psychiatric disorders. Some research considerations. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 1972;48(1):3-21. Abstract

Rutter M. Diagnosis and definition of childhood autism. J Autism Child Schizophr. 1978;8(2):139-61. Abstract

Rutter M. Genetic studies of autism: from the 1970s into the millennium. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2000;28(1):3-14. Abstract

Saracco-Alvarez R, Rodríguez-Verdugo S, García-Anaya M, Fresán A. Premorbid adjustment in schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Psychiatry Res. 2009;165(3):234-40. Abstract

Sahoo T, Theisen A, Rosenfeld JA, Lamb AN, Ravnan JB, Schultz RA, et al., Copy number variants of schizophrenia susceptibility loci are associated with a spectrum of speech and developmental delays and behavior problems. Genet Med. 2011; 13(10):868-80. Abstract

Sheitman BB, Kraus JE, Bodfish JW, Carmel H. Are the negative symptoms of schizophrenia consistent with an autistic spectrum illness? Schizophr Res. 2004;69(1):119-20. Abstract

Sobin C, Blundell ML, Conry A, Weiller F, Gavigan C, Haiman C, et al., Early, non-psychotic deviant behavior in schizophrenia: a possible endophenotypic marker for genetic studies. Psychiatry Res. 2001;101(2):101-13. Abstract

Talkowski ME, Rosenfeld JA, Blumenthal I, Pillalamarri V, Chiang C, Heilbut A, Ernst C, Hanscom C, Rossin E, Lindgren AM, Pereira S, Ruderfer D, Kirby A, Ripke S, Harris DJ, Lee JH, Ha K, Kim HG, Solomon BD, Gropman AL, Lucente D, Sims K, Ohsumi TK, Borowsky ML, Loranger S, Quade B, Lage K, Miles J, Wu BL, Shen Y, Neale B, Shaffer LG, Daly MJ, Morton CC, Gusella JF. Sequencing Chromosomal Abnormalities Reveals Neurodevelopmental Loci that Confer Risk across Diagnostic Boundaries. Cell. 2012;149(3):525-37. Abstract

Tandon R, Nasrallah HA, Keshavan MS. Schizophrenia, "just the facts" 4. Clinical features and conceptualization. Schizophr Res. 2009;110(1-3):1-23. Abstract

Tjordman S Reunifying autism and early-onset schizophrenia in terms of social communication disorders. Behav Brain Sci. 2008;31(3):278-9.

Vassos E, Collier DA, Holden S, Patch C, Rujescu D, St Clair D, et al., Penetrance for copy number variants associated with schizophrenia. Hum Mol Genet. 2010;19(17):3477-81. Abstract

View all comments by Bernard Crespi

Comments on Related News

Related News: Genomic Studies Draw Autism and Schizophrenia Back Toward Each Other

Comment by:  Katie Rodriguez
Submitted 7 November 2009
Posted 7 November 2009

If schizophrenia and autism are on a spectrum, how can there be people who are both autistic and schizophrenic? I know of a few people who suffer from both diseases.

View all comments by Katie Rodriguez

Related News: Genomic Studies Draw Autism and Schizophrenia Back Toward Each Other

Comment by:  Bernard Crespi
Submitted 12 November 2009
Posted 12 November 2009

One Hundred Years of Insanity: The Relationship Between Schizophrenia and Autism
The great Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez reified the cyclical nature of history in his Nobel Prize-winning 1967 book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Eugen Bleuler’s less-famous book Dementia Præcox or the Group of Schizophrenias, originally published in 1911, saw first use of the term “autism,” a form of solitude manifest as withdrawal from reality in schizophrenia. This neologism, about to celebrate its centenary, epitomizes an astonishing cycle of reification and change in nosology, a cycle only now coming into clear view as molecular-genetic data confront the traditional, age-old categories of psychiatric classification.

The term autism was, of course, redefined by Leo Kanner (1943) for a childhood psychiatric condition first considered as a subset of schizophrenia, then regarded as quite distinct (Rutter, 1972) or even opposite to it (Rimland, 1964; Crespi and Badcock, 2008), and most recently seen by some researchers as returning to its original Bluelerian incarnation (e.g., Carroll and Owen, 2009). An outstanding new paper by McCarthy et al. (2009), demonstrating that duplications of the CNV locus 16p11.2 are strongly associated with increased risk of schizophrenia, has brought this question to the forefront of psychiatric inquiry, because deletions of this same CNV are one of the most striking recently-characterized risk factors for autism. Additional CNVs, such as those at 1q21.1 and 22q11.21 have also been associated with autism and schizophrenia in one or more studies (e.g., Mefford et al., 2008; Crespi et al., 2009; Glessner et al., 2009), which has led some authors to infer that since an overlapping set of loci mediates risk of both conditions, autism and schizophrenia must be more similar than previously conceived (e.g., Carroll and Owen, 2009; Guilmatre et al., 2009). Similar considerations apply to several genes, such as CNTNAP2 and NRXN1, various disruptions of which have likewise been linked with both conditions (Iossifov et al., 2008; Kirov et al., 2008; Burbach and van der Zwaag, 2009).

So does this plethora of new molecular-genetic data imply that Blueler was indeed correct, if not prescient, that autism and schizophrenia are manifestations of similar disease processes? The answer may appear tantalizingly close, but will likely remain inaccessible without explicit consideration of alternative hypotheses and targeted tests of their differentiating predictions. This approach is simply Platt’s (1964) classic method of strong inference, which has propelled molecular biology so far and fast but left psychiatry largely by the wayside (Cannon, 2009). The alternative hypotheses in this case are clear: with regard to causation from specific genetic and genomic risk factors, autism and schizophrenia are either: 1) independent and discrete, 2) partially yet broadly overlapping, 3) subsumed with autism as a subset of schizophrenia, or 4) diametrically opposite, with normality in the centre. CNVs are especially useful for testing among such alternative hypotheses, because they naturally involve highly-penetrant perturbations in two opposite directions, due to deletions vs duplications of more or less the same genomic regions. Hypotheses 2), 3) and 4) thus predict that autism and schizophrenia should share CNV risk loci, but 2) and 3) predict specific rearrangements (deletions, duplications, or both) shared across both conditions; by contrast, hypothesis (4) predicts that, as highlighted by McCarthy et al. (2009), reciprocal CNVs at the same locus should mediate risk of autism versus schizophrenia. This general approach was pioneered by Craddock et al. (2005, 2009), in their discussion of explicit alternative hypotheses for the relationship between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which are now known to share a notable suite of risk alleles.

A key assumption that underlies tests of hypotheses for the relationship between autism and schizophrenia is accuracy of diagnoses. For schizophrenia, this is seldom at issue. However, diagnoses of autism, or autism spectrum disorders such as PDD-NOS, are normally made at an age well before the first manifestations of schizophrenia in adolescence or early adulthood, which generates a risk for false-positive diagnoses of premorbidity to schizophrenia as autism or autism spectrum (e.g., Eliez, 2007). The tendencies for males to exhibit worse premorbidity to schizophrenia than females (Sobin et al., 2001; Tandon et al., 2009), for CNVs to exert severe effects on diverse aspects of early neurodevelopment (Shinawi et al., 2009), and for schizophrenia of earlier onset to exhibit a higher male sex-ratio bias and a stronger tendency to be associated with CNVs rather than other causes (Remschmidt et al., 1994; Rapoport et al., 2009), all suggest a high risk for false-positive diagnoses of autistic spectrum conditions in individuals with these genomic risk factors (Feinstein and Singh, 2007; Reaven et al., 2008; Sugihara et al., 2008; Starling and Dossetor, 2009). Possible evidence of such risk comes from diagnoses of autism spectrum conditions in children with deletions at 15q11.2, 15q13.3, and 22q11.21, and duplications of 16p11.2, CNVs for which schizophrenia risk has been well established from studies of adults (Antshel et al., 2007; Stefansson et al., 2008; Weiss et al., 2008; Ben-Shachar et al., 2009; Doornbos et al., 2009; McCarthy et al., 2009). By contrast, autism-associated CNVs, such as deletions at 16p11.2 (Kumar et al., 2008), or duplications at 22q11.21 (Glessner et al., 2009; Crespi et al., 2009) have seldom also been reported in individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, which suggests that false-positive diagnoses of schizophrenia as autism are uncommon.

Differentiating between a hypothesis of false-positive diagnoses of premorbidity to schizophrenia as autism, compared to a hypothesis of specific deletions or duplications shared between autism and schizophrenia, requires some combination of longitudinal studies, judicious use of endophenotypes, and adoption of relatively new diagnostic categories such as multiple complex developmental disorder (Sprong et al., 2008). Moreover, to the degree that such false positives are not uncommon, and autism and schizophrenia are underlain by diametric genetically based risk factors, inclusion of children premorbid for schizophrenia in studies on the genetic bases of autism will substantially dilute the probability of detecting significant results.

Ultimately, robust evaluation of alternative hypotheses for the relationship of autism with schizophrenia will require evidence from studies of common and rare SNP variants as well as CNVs, in-depth analyses of the neurodevelopmental and neuronal-function effects of different alterations to genes such as NRXN1, CNTNAP2, and SHANK3, and integrative data from diverse disciplines other than genetics, especially the neurosciences and psychology. Unless such interdisciplinary studies are deployed—in hypothesis-testing frameworks that use strong inference—we should expect to remain, as penned by García Márquez, in “permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knows for certain where the limits of reality lay”—for yet another 100 years.

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Bleuler E. 1950. Dementia praecox or the group of schizophrenias. (Internat Univ Press, New York). (Translation from 1911 German original).

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Related News: Genomic Studies Draw Autism and Schizophrenia Back Toward Each Other

Comment by:  Suzanna Russell-SmithDonna BaylissMurray Maybery
Submitted 9 February 2010
Posted 10 February 2010

The Diametric Opposition of Autism and Psychosis: Support From a Study of Cognition
As has been noted previously, Crespi and Badcock’s (2008) theory that autism and schizophrenia are diametrically opposed disorders is certainly a novel and somewhat controversial one. In his recent blog on Psychology Today, Badcock states that the theory stands on two completely different foundations: one in evolution and genetics, and one in psychiatry and cognitive science (Badcock, 2010). While most of the comments posted before ours have addressed the relationship between autism and schizophrenia from a genetic perspective, coming from a psychology background, we note that it is the aspects of Crespi and Badcock’s theory that relate to cognition which have particularly caught our attention. While we can therefore contribute little to the discussion of a relationship between autism and schizophrenia from a genetic standpoint, we present the findings from our recent study (Russell-Smith et al., 2010), which provided the first test of Crespi and Badcock’s claim that autism and psychosis are at opposite ends of the cognitive spectrum.

In placing autism and psychosis at opposite ends of the cognitive spectrum, Crespi and Badcock (2008) propose that autistic and positive schizophrenia traits contrastingly affect preference for local versus global processing, with individuals with autism displaying a preference for local processing and individuals with positive schizophrenia displaying a preference for global processing. That is, these authors claim that while individuals with autism show a tendency to focus on detail or process features in their isolation, individuals with positive schizophrenia show a tendency to look at the bigger picture or process features as an integrated whole. Importantly, since Crespi and Badcock argue for a continuum stretching all the way from autism to psychosis, the same diametric pattern of cognition should be seen in individuals who display only mild variants of autistic and positive schizophrenia traits. This includes typical individuals who score highly on measures such as the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ; Baron-Cohen et al., 2001) and the Unusual Experiences subscale of the Oxford-Liverpool Inventory of Experiences (O-LIFE:UE; Mason et al., 2005). These are both reliable and commonly used measures which have been specifically designed to assess the levels of “autistic-like” traits and positive schizotypy traits in typical individuals. Since Crespi and Badcock actually argue their theory is best evaluated with reference to individuals with milder traits of autism and positive schizophrenia, it is with these populations that we investigated their claims.

A task often used to determine whether an individual has a preference for local over global processing is the Embedded Figures Test (EFT; Witkin et al., 1971), which requires individuals to detect hidden shapes within complex figures. As the test requires one to resist experiencing an integrated visual stimulus or gestalt in favor of seeing single elements, it is argued that a local processing style aids successful (i.e., faster) completion of this task (Bolte et al., 2007). Accordingly, from Crespi and Badcock’s (2008) theory, one would expect that relative to individuals with low levels of these traits, individuals with high levels of autistic-like traits should perform better on the EFT, while individuals with positive schizotypy traits should perform worse. To test this claim, our study obtained the AQ and O-LIFE:UE scores for 318 students completing psychology as part of a broader degree (e.g., a BSc or BA). Two pairs of groups (i.e., four groups in total), each consisting of 20 students, were then formed. One of these pairs consisted of High and Low AQ groups, which were selected such that they were separated substantially in their AQ scores but matched as closely as possible on their O-LIFE:UE scores. The other pair of groups, the High and Low O-LIFE:UE groups, were selected such that they were separated in their O-LIFE:UE scores, but matched as closely as possible on their AQ scores. The gender ratio was matched closely across the four groups.

To test the prediction that higher levels of autistic-like traits are associated with more skilled EFT performance, the High and Low AQ groups were compared in terms of their mean response time to accurately locate each of the embedded figures. Individuals in the High AQ group did display more skilled EFT performance than individuals in the Low AQ group, consistent with a greater preference for local over global processing in relation to higher levels of autistic-like traits (see also Almeida et al., 2010; Bolte and Poustka, 2007; Grinter et al., 2009; Grinter et al., 2009). We then compared EFT performance for the O-LIFE:UE groups to test the prediction that higher levels of positive schizotypy traits are associated with less skilled performance on this task. Consistent with a preference for global over local processing in relation to higher levels of positive schizotypy traits, individuals in the High O-LIFE:UE group displayed less skilled EFT performance than individuals in the Low O-LIFE:UE group. Therefore, results from both pairs of groups together provide support for Crespi and Badcock’s (2008) claim that autistic and positive schizophrenia traits are diametrically opposed with regard to their effect on local versus global processing.

However, the support our study offers for Crespi and Badcock’s (2008) theory was tempered slightly by our failure to find the expected contrasting patterns of non-verbal relative to verbal ability for our two pairs of groups. To display the expected patterns, relative to individuals with low levels of these traits, individuals with high levels of autistic-like traits should have displayed higher non-verbal ability relative to verbal ability, whereas individuals with high levels of positive schizotypy traits should have displayed lower non-verbal relative to verbal ability. While visual inspection of mean verbal and non-verbal scores for the O-LIFE:UE groups revealed a trend consistent with what would be expected based on Crespi and Badcock’s theory, none of the group differences was statistically significant. However, as we pointed out in our article, a study which offers a more complete assessment of this aspect of the theory is warranted. In particular, since the use of a student sample in our study no doubt led to a restriction in the range of IQ scores (especially with reference to verbal IQ), a test of community-based samples would be useful.

Therefore, while Crespi and Badcock’s (2008) theory has passed its first major test at the level of cognition, with our results indicating a contrasting effect of autistic-like and positive schizotypy traits with regard to preference for local versus global processing, further investigation of these authors’ theory at both the cognitive and genetic levels is required.


Almeida, R., Dickinson, J., Maybery, M., Badcock, J., Badcock, D. A new step toward understanding Embedded Figures Test performance in the autism spectrum: The radial frequency search task. Neuropsychologia. 2010 Jan;48(2):374-81. Abstract

Badcock, C. (2010). Diametric cognition passes its first lab test. Psychology Today. Retrieved February 8, from

Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 5-17. Abstract

Bolte, S., Holtmann, M., Poustka, F., Scheurich, A., Schmidt, L. (2007). Gestalt perception and local-global processing in High-Functioning Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1493-1504. Abstract

Bolte, S., Poustka, F. (2006). The broader cognitive phenotype of autism in parents: How specific is the tendency for local processing and executive function. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 639-645. Abstract

Crespi, B., Badcock, C. (2008). Psychosis and autism as diametrical disorders of the social brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31, 241-261. Abstract

Grinter, E., Maybery, M., Van Beek, P., Pellicano, E., Badcock, J., Badcock, D. (2009). Global visual processing and self-rated autistic-like traits. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 1278-1290. Abstract

Grinter, E., Van Beek, P., Maybery, M., Badcock, D. (2009). Brief Report: Visuospatial analysis and self-rated autistic-like traits. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 670–677. Abstract

Mason, O., Linney, Y., Claridge, G. (2005). Short scales for measuring schizotypy. Schizophrenia Research, 78, 293-296. Abstract

Russell-Smith, S., Maybery, M., Bayliss, D. Are the autism and positive schizotypy spectra diametrically opposed in local versus global processing? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2010 Jan 28. Abstract

Witkin, H., Oltman, P., Raskin, E., Karp, S. (1971). A manual for the Embedded Figures Test. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

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Related News: GWAS Goes Bigger: Large Sample Sizes Uncover New Risk Loci, Additional Overlap in Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder

Comment by:  David J. Porteous, SRF Advisor
Submitted 21 September 2011
Posted 21 September 2011

Consorting with GWAS for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder: same message, (some) different genes
On 18 September 2011, Nature Genetics published the results from the Psychiatric Genetics Consortium of two separate, large-scale GWAS analyses, for schizophrenia (Ripke et al., 2011) and for bipolar disorder (Sklar et al., 2011), and a joint analysis of both. By combining forces across several consortia who have previously published separately, we should now have some clarity and definitive answers.

For schizophrenia, the Stage 1 GWAS discovery data came from 9,394 cases and 12,462 controls from 17 studies, imputing 1,252,901 SNPs. The Stage 2 replication sample comprised 8,442 cases and 21,397 controls. Of the 136 SNPs which reached genomewide significance in Stage 1, 129 (95 percent) mapped to the MHC locus, long known to be associated with risk of schizophrenia. Of the remaining seven SNPs, five mapped to previously identified loci. In total, just 10 loci met or exceeded the criteria of genomewide significance of p <5 x 10-8 at Stage 1 and/or Stage 2. The 10 "best" SNPs identified eight loci: MIR137, TRIM26, CSM1, CNNM2, NT5C2 and TCF4 were tagged by intragenic SNPs, while the remaining two were at some distance from a known gene (343 kb from PCGEM1 and 126 kb from CCDC68). More important than the absolute significance levels, the overall odds ratios (with 95 percent confidence intervals) ranged from 1.08 (0.96-1.20) to 1.40 (1.28-1.52). These fractional increases contrast with the ~10-fold increase in risk to the first-degree relative of someone with schizophrenia (Gottesman et al., 2010).

Six of these eight loci have been reported previously, but ZNF804A, a past favorite, was noticeably absent from the "top 10" list. The main attention now will surely be on MIR137, a newly discovered locus which encodes a microRNA, mir137, known to regulate neuronal development. The authors remark that 17 predicted MIR137 targets had a SNP with a p <10-4, more than twice as many as for the control gene set (p <0.01), though this relaxed significance cutoff seems somewhat arbitrary and warrants further examination. The result for MIR137 immediately begs the questions, Does the "risk" SNP affect MIR137 function directly or indirectly, and if so, does it affect the expression of any of the putative targets identified here? These are fairly straightforward questions: positive answers are vital to the biological validation of these statistical associations. As has been the case for follow-up studies of ZNF804A, however (reviewed by Donohoe et al., 2010), unequivocal answers from GWAS "hits" can be hard to come by, not least because of the very modest relative risks that they confer. Let us hope that this is not the case for MIR137, but it is of passing note that for two of the eight replication cohorts, the direction of effect for MIR137 was in the opposite direction from the Stage 1 finding. Taken together with the odds ratios reported in the range of 1.11-1.22, the effect size for the end phenotype of schizophrenia may be challenging to validate functionally. Perhaps a relevant intermediate phenotype more proximal to the gene will prove tractable.

For bipolar disorder, Stage 1 comprised 7,481 cases versus 9,250 controls, and identified 34 promising SNPs. These were replicated in Stage 2 in an independent set of 4,496 cases and a whopping 42,422 controls: 18 of the 34 SNPs survived at p <0.05. Taking Stage 1 and 2 together confirmed the previous "hot" finding for CACNA1C (Odds ratio = 1.14) and introduced a new candidate in ODZ4 (Odds ratio = 0.88, i.e., the minor allele is presumably "protective" or under some form of selection). Previous candidates ANK3 and SYNE1 looked promising at Stage 1, but did not replicate at Stage 2.

Finally, in a combined analysis of schizophrenia plus bipolar disorder versus controls, three of the respective "top 10" loci, CACNA1C, ANK3, and the ITIH3-ITIH4 region, came out as significant overall. This is consistent with the earlier evidence from the ISC for an overlap between the polygenic index for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (Purcell et al., 2009). It is also consistent with the epidemiological evidence for shared genetic risk between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (Lichtenstein et al., 2009; Gottesman et al., 2010).

What can we take from these studies? The authorship lists alone speak to the size of the collaborative effort involved and the sheer organizational task, depending on your point of view, that most of the positive findings were reported on previously could be seen as valuable "replication," or unnecessary duplication of cost and effort. Whichever way you look at it, though, just two new loci for schizophrenia and one for bipolar looks like a modest return for such a gargantuan investment. It begs the question as to whether the GWAS approach is gaining the hoped-for traction on major mental illness. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the technology tide is rapidly turning away from allelic association methods and towards rare mutation detection by copy number variation, exome, and/or whole-genome sequencing (Vacic et al., 2011; Xu et al., 2011).

Family studies are, as ever and always, of critical importance in genetics, and to distinguish between inherited and de-novo mutations. While the emphasis of GWAS has been on the impact of common, ancient allelic variation, it has become ever more obvious from both past linkage studies and from contemporary GWAS and CNV studies just how heterogeneous these conditions are, and how little note individual cases and families take of conventional DSM diagnostic boundaries. Improved genetic and other tools through which to stratify risk, define phenotypes, and predict outcomes are clearly needed. Whether such tools can be derived for GWAS data remains to be seen. It is important to remind ourselves of two things. First, case/association studies tell us something about the average impact (odds ratio, with confidence interval) of a given allele in the population studied. In these very large GWAS, this measure of impact will be approximating to the European population average. The odds ratios tell us that the impact per allele is modest. More importantly in some ways, the allele frequencies also tell us that the vast majority of allele carriers are not affected. Likewise, a high proportion of cases are not carriers. In the main, they are subtle risk modifiers rather than causal variants. That said, follow-up studies may define rare, functional genetic variants in MIR137 or CACNA1C or ANK3 that are tagged by the risk allele and that have sufficiently strong effects in a subset of cases for a causal link to be made. With this new GWAS data in hand, these sorts of questions can now be addressed.

It should also be said that there is clearly a wealth of potentially valuable information lying below the surface of the most statistically significant findings, but how to sort the true from the false associations? Should the MIR137 finding, and the targets of MIR137, be substantiated by biological analysis, then that would certainly be something well worth knowing and following up on. Network analysis by gene ontology and protein-protein interaction may yield more, but these approaches need to be approached with caution when not securely anchored from a biologically validated start point. Epistasis and pleiotropy are most likely playing a role, but even in these large sample sets, the power to determine statistical (as opposed to biological) evidence is challenging. All told, one is left thinking that more incisive findings have and will in the future come from family-based approaches, through structural studies (CNVs and chromosome translocations), and, in the near future, whole-genome sequencing of cases and relatives.


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Psychiatric GWAS Consortium Bipolar Disorder Working Group, Sklar P, Ripke S, Scott LJ, Andreassen OA, Cichon S, Craddock N, Edenberg HJ, Nurnberger JI Jr, Rietschel M, Blackwood D, Corvin A, Flickinger M, Guan W, Mattingsdal M, McQuillin A, Kwan P, Wienker TF, Daly M, Dudbridge F, Holmans PA, Lin D, Burmeister M, Greenwood TA, Hamshere ML, Muglia P, Smith EN, Zandi PP, Nievergelt CM, McKinney R, Shilling PD, Schork NJ, Bloss CS, Foroud T, Koller DL, Gershon ES, Liu C, Badner JA, Scheftner WA, Lawson WB, Nwulia EA, Hipolito M, Coryell W, Rice J, Byerley W, McMahon FJ, Schulze TG, Berrettini W, Lohoff FW, Potash JB, Mahon PB, McInnis MG, Zöllner S, Zhang P, Craig DW, Szelinger S, Barrett TB, Breuer R, Meier S, Strohmaier J, Witt SH, Tozzi F, Farmer A, McGuffin P, Strauss J, Xu W, Kennedy JL, Vincent JB, Matthews K, Day R, Ferreira MA, O'Dushlaine C, Perlis R, Raychaudhuri S, Ruderfer D, Hyoun PL, Smoller JW, Li J, Absher D, Thompson RC, Meng FG, Schatzberg AF, Bunney WE, Barchas JD, Jones EG, Watson SJ, Myers RM, Akil H, Boehnke M, Chambert K, Moran J, Scolnick E, Djurovic S, Melle I, Morken G, Gill M, Morris D, Quinn E, Mühleisen TW, Degenhardt FA, Mattheisen M, Schumacher J, Maier W, Steffens M, Propping P, Nöthen MM, Anjorin A, Bass N, Gurling H, Kandaswamy R, Lawrence J, McGhee K, McIntosh A, McLean AW, Muir WJ, Pickard BS, Breen G, St Clair D, Caesar S, Gordon-Smith K, Jones L, Fraser C, Green EK, Grozeva D, Jones IR, Kirov G, Moskvina V, Nikolov I, O'Donovan MC, Owen MJ, Collier DA, Elkin A, Williamson R, Young AH, Ferrier IN, Stefansson K, Stefansson H, Thornorgeirsson T, Steinberg S, Gustafsson O, Bergen SE, Nimgaonkar V, Hultman C, Landén M, Lichtenstein P, Sullivan P, Schalling M, Osby U, Backlund L, Frisén L, Langstrom N, Jamain S, Leboyer M, Etain B, Bellivier F, Petursson H, Sigur Sson E, Müller-Mysok B, Lucae S, Schwarz M, Schofield PR, Martin N, Montgomery GW, Lathrop M, Oskarsson H, Bauer M, Wright A, Mitchell PB, Hautzinger M, Reif A, Kelsoe JR, Purcell SM. Large-scale genome-wide association analysis of bipolar disorder reveals a new susceptibility locus near ODZ4. Nat Genet. 2011 Sep 18. Abstract

Lichtenstein P, Yip BH, Björk C, Pawitan Y, Cannon TD, Sullivan PF, Hultman CM. Common genetic determinants of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in Swedish families: a population-based study. Lancet . 2009 Jan 17 ; 373(9659):234-9. Abstract

Gottesman II, Laursen TM, Bertelsen A, Mortensen PB. Severe mental disorders in offspring with 2 psychiatrically ill parents. Arch Gen Psychiatry . 2010 Mar 1 ; 67(3):252-7. Abstract

Donohoe G, Morris DW, Corvin A. The psychosis susceptibility gene ZNF804A: associations, functions, and phenotypes. Schizophr Bull . 2010 Sep 1 ; 36(5):904-9. Abstract

Purcell SM, Wray NR, Stone JL, Visscher PM, O'Donovan MC, Sullivan PF, Sklar P. Common polygenic variation contributes to risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Nature . 2009 Aug 6 ; 460(7256):748-52. Abstract

Vacic V, McCarthy S, Malhotra D, Murray F, Chou HH, Peoples A, Makarov V, Yoon S, Bhandari A, Corominas R, Iakoucheva LM, Krastoshevsky O, Krause V, Larach-Walters V, Welsh DK, Craig D, Kelsoe JR, Gershon ES, Leal SM, Dell Aquila M, Morris DW, Gill M, Corvin A, Insel PA, McClellan J, King MC, Karayiorgou M, Levy DL, DeLisi LE, Sebat J. Duplications of the neuropeptide receptor gene VIPR2 confer significant risk for schizophrenia. Nature . 2011 Mar 24 ; 471(7339):499-503. Abstract

Xu B, Roos JL, Dexheimer P, Boone B, Plummer B, Levy S, Gogos JA, Karayiorgou M. Exome sequencing supports a de novo mutational paradigm for schizophrenia. Nat Genet . 2011 Jan 1 ; 43(9):864-8. Abstract

View all comments by David J. Porteous

Related News: GWAS Goes Bigger: Large Sample Sizes Uncover New Risk Loci, Additional Overlap in Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder

Comment by:  Patrick Sullivan, SRF Advisor
Submitted 26 September 2011
Posted 26 September 2011
  I recommend the Primary Papers

The two papers appearing online in Nature Genetics last Sunday are truly important additions to our increasing knowledge base for these disorders. The core analyses have been presented multiple times at international meetings in the past two years.

Since then, the available sample sizes for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have grown considerably. If the recently published data are any guide, the next round of analyses should be particularly revealing.

The PGC results and almost all of the data that were used in these reports are available by application to the controlled-access repository.

Please see the references for views of this area that contrast with those of Professor Porteous.


Sullivan P. Don't give up on GWAS. Molecular Psychiatry. 2011 Aug 9. Abstract

Kim Y, Zerwas S, Trace SE, Sullivan PF. Schizophrenia genetics: where next? Schizophr Bull. 2011;37:456-63. Abstract

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Related News: GWAS Goes Bigger: Large Sample Sizes Uncover New Risk Loci, Additional Overlap in Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder

Comment by:  Edward Scolnick
Submitted 28 September 2011
Posted 29 September 2011
  I recommend the Primary Papers

It is clear in human genetics that common variants and rare variants have frequently been detected in the same genes. Numerous examples exist in many diseases. The bashing of GWAS in schizophrenia and bipolar illness indicates, by those who make such comments, a lack of understanding of human genetics and where the field is. When these studies were initiated five years ago, next-generation sequencing was not available. Large samples of populations or trios or quartets did not exist. The international consortia have worked to collect such samples that are available for GWAS now, as well as for detailed sequencing studies. Before these studies began there was virtually nothing known about the etiology of schizophrenia and bipolar illness. The DISC1 gene translocation in the famous family was an important observation in that family. But almost a decade later there is still no convincing data that variants in Disc1 or many of its interacting proteins are involved in the pathogenesis of human schizophrenia or major mental illness.

Sequencing studies touted to be the Occam's razor for the field are beginning, and already, as in the past in this field, preemptive papers are appearing inadequately powered to draw any conclusions with certainty. Samples collected by the consortia will be critical to clarify the role of rare variants. This will take time and care so as not to set the field back into the morass it used to be. GWAS are basically modern public health epidemiology providing important clues to disease etiology. Much work is clearly needed once hits are found, just as it has been in traditional epidemiology. But in many fields, GWAS has already led to important biological insights, and it is certain it will do so in this field as well because the underlying principles of human genetics apply to this field, also. The primary problem in the field is totally inadequate funding by government organizations that consistently look for shortcuts to gain insights and new treatments, and forget how genetics has transformed cancer, immunology, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, and led to better diagnostics and treatments. The field will never understand the pathogenesis of these illnesses until the genetic architecture is deciphered. The first enzyme discovered in E. coli DNA biochemistry was a repair enzyme—not the enzyme that replicated DNA—and this was discovered through genetics. The progress in this field has been dramatic in the past five years. All doing this work realize that this is only a beginning and that there is a long hard road to full understanding. But to denigrate the beginning, which is clearly solid, makes no sense and indicates a provincialism unbecoming to a true scientist.

View all comments by Edward Scolnick

Related News: GWAS Goes Bigger: Large Sample Sizes Uncover New Risk Loci, Additional Overlap in Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder

Comment by:  Nick CraddockMichael O'Donovan (SRF Advisor)
Submitted 11 October 2011
Posted 11 October 2011

At the start of the millennium, only two molecular genetic findings could be said with a fair amount of confidence to be etiologically relevant to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The first of these was that deletions of chromosome 22q11 that are known to cause velo-cardio-facial syndrome also confer a substantial increase in risk of psychosis. The second was the discovery by David St Clair, Douglas Blackwood, and colleagues (St Clair et al., 1990) of a balanced translocation involving chromosomes 1 and 11 that co-segregates with a range of psychiatric phenotypes in a single large family, was clearly relevant to the etiology of illness in that family (Blackwood et al., 2001). The latter finding has led to the conjecture, based upon a translocation breakpoint analysis reported by Kirsty Millar, David Porteous, and colleagues (Millar et al., 2000), that elevated risk in that family is conferred by altered function of a gene eponymously named DISC1. Just over a decade later, what can we now say with similar degrees of confidence? The relevance of deletions of 22q11 has stood the test of time—indeed, has strengthened—through further investigation (Levinson et al., 2011, being only one example), while the relevance of DISC1 remains conjecture. That the evidence implicating this gene is no stronger than it was all those years ago provides a clear illustration of the difficulties inherent in drawing etiological inferences from extremely rare mutations regardless of their effect size.

However, with the publication of several GWAS and CNV papers, culminating in the two mega-analyses reported by the PGC that are the subject of this commentary, one on schizophrenia, one on bipolar disorder, together reporting a total of six novel loci, very strong evidence has accumulated for approximately 20 new loci in psychosis. The majority of these are defined by SNPs, the remainder by copy number variants, and virtually all (including the rare, relatively high-penetrance CNVs) have emerged through the application of GWAS technology to large case-control samples, not through the study of linkage or families. Have GWAS approaches proven their worth? Clearly, the genetic findings represent the tip of a very deeply submerged iceberg, and it is possible that not all will stand the test of time and additional data, although the current levels of statistical support suggest the majority will do so. Nevertheless, the findings of SNP and CNV associations (including 22q11 deletions) seem to us to provide the first real signs of progress in uncovering strongly supported findings of primary etiological relevance to these disorders. Although SNP effects are small, the experience from other complex phenotypes is that statistically robust genetic associations, even those of very small effect, can highlight biological pathways of etiological (height; Lango Allen et al., 2010) and of possible therapeutic relevance (Alzheimer's disease; Jones et al., 2010). Moreover, it would seem intuitively likely that even if capturing the total heritable component of a disorder is presently a distant goal, the greater the number of associations captured, the better will be the snapshot of the sorts of processes that contribute to a disorder, and that might therefore be manipulated in its treatment. Thus, there is evidence that building even a very incomplete picture of the sort of genes that influence risk is an excellent method of informing understanding of pathogenesis of a highly complex disorder (or set of disorders).

As in previous GWAS and CNV endeavors, the PGC studies have required a significant degree of altruism from the hundreds of investigators and clinicians who have shared their data with little hope of significant academic credit. Moreover, where ethical approval permitted, the datasets have been made virtually open source for other investigators who are not part of the study. Sadly, this generosity of spirit is not matched in the rather curmudgeonly commentary provided by David Porteous. Rather than challenging the science or conduct of the study, it appears to us that the commentary takes the easier route of damnation by faint praise, distortion, and even innuendo.

The strongest finding, that being of association to the extended MHC region, is dismissed as "long known to be associated with risk of schizophrenia." How that knowledge was acquired a long time ago is unclear, but it cannot have been based upon data. It is true that weak and inconsistent associations at the MHC locus have been reported, even predating the molecular genetic era (McGuffin et al., 1978), but not until the landmark studies of the International Schizophrenia Consortium (2009), the Molecular Genetics of Schizophrenia Consortium (AbstractShi et al., 2009), and the SGENE+ Consortium (Stefansson et al., 2009) have the findings been strong enough to be described as knowledge. Porteous’ dismissive tone continues with the phrase "just 10 loci met….," the word "just" being a qualifier that seems designed to denigrate rather than challenge the results. Given the paucity of etiological clues, others might consider this a good yield. The observation in which the effect sizes at the detected loci are contrasted "with the ~10-fold increase in risk to the first-degree relative of someone with schizophrenia" is so fatuous it is difficult to believe its function is anything other than to insinuate in the mind of the reader the impression of failure. Yet no one remotely aware of the expectations behind GWAS would expect that the effect sizes of any common risk allele would bear any resemblance to that of family history, the latter reflecting the combined effects of many risk alleles.

Among the most important findings of the PGC schizophrenia group were those of strong evidence for association between a variant in the vicinity of a gene encoding regulatory RNA MIR137, and the subsequent finding that schizophrenia association signals were significantly enriched (P <0.01) among predicted targets of this regulatory RNA. Of course, like the other findings, there is room for the already very strong data to be further strengthened, but that finding alone opens up a whole new window in potential pathogenic mechanisms. Yet Porteous casually throws four handfuls of mud, dismissing the enrichment p <0.01 as a "relaxed significance cutoff," which "seems somewhat arbitrary," and that "warrants further examination," and commenting that "it is of passing note that for two of the eight replication cohorts, the direction of effect for MIR137 was in the opposite direction from the Stage 1 finding." If Porteous feels he has the expertise to pronounce on this analysis, it would behoove him well to choose his words more carefully. Since when is a P value of <0.01 "relaxed" when applied to a test of a single hypothesis? Can he really be unaware of the longstanding convention of regarding P <0.05 as significant in specific hypothesis testing? If he is not unaware of this, why is it generally applicable but "somewhat arbitrary" in the context of the PGC study? As for "further examination being warranted," this is true of any scientific finding, but what does he specifically mean in the context of his commentary? And why is it of "passing note" that not all samples show trends in the same direction? In the context of the well-known issues in GWAS concerning individual small samples and power, what is surprising about that? There may be simple answers to these questions, but we find it difficult to draw any other conclusion than that the choice of language is anything other than another attempt to sow seeds of doubt through innuendo rather than analysis.

The remark that "ZNF804A, a past favourite, was noticeably absent" falls well short of the standard one might expect of serious discourse. The choice of language suggests a desire to denigrate rather than analyse, and to insinuate without specific evidence that any interest in this gene should now be over. In fact, the largest study of this gene to date is that of Williams et al. (2010), which actually includes at least two-thirds of the PGC discovery dataset and is based on over 57,000 subjects, a sample almost three times as large as the mega-analysis sample of the PGC.

Porteous’ overall conclusion from the two studies is "whichever way you look at it, though, just two new loci for schizophrenia and one for bipolar looks like a modest return for such a gargantuan investment." This appraisal is misleading. The PGC studies were actually relatively small investments, being based on a synthesis of pre-existing data. Since the studies use existing data, there is naturally an expectation that some of the loci identified will have been previously reported as either significant or have otherwise been flagged up as of interest, while some will be new. Overall, the return on the GWAS investment is not just the six novel loci (rather than three); it is the totality of the findings, which, as noted above, currently number about 20 loci. The schizophrenia research community should also be made aware, if they are not already, that the return on these investments is not "one off"; it is cumulative. In the coming years, the component datasets will continue to generate a return in new gene discoveries (including CNVs yet to be reported by the PGC) as they are added (at essentially no cost) to other emerging GWAS datasets being generated largely through charitable support. With the returns in the bank already, one could (and we do) argue that the investment is negligible, particularly given the cost in human and economic terms of continued ignorance about these illnesses that blight so many lives.

It is true that with so little being known compared with what is yet to be known, the biological insights that can be made from the existing data are limited. This is equally true of the common and rare variants identified so far, and we are not aware of any of the "incisive findings" that Porteous claims have already come from alternative approaches, although the emergence of strong evidence for deletions at NRXN1 as a susceptibility variant for schizophrenia through meta-analysis of case-control GWAS data (one of the extra returns on the GWAS data we referred to above) deserves that description (Kirov et al., 2009). But this is not a cause for despair; in contrast to the future promises made on behalf of other as yet unproven designs, for eyes and minds that are open enough to see, the recent papers provide unambiguous evidence for a straightforward route to identifying more genes and pathways involved in the disorder. Even Porteous has partial sight of this, since he notes that "there is clearly a wealth of potentially valuable information lying below the surface of the most statistically significant findings." What he appears unable to see is "how to sort the true from the false associations?" The answer for a large number of loci is simple. Better-powered studies based upon larger sample sizes.

We would like to add a note of caution for those who too readily denigrate case-control approaches in favor of hyping other approaches, none of which are yet so well proven routes to success. We are not against those approaches; indeed, we are actively involved in them. But we are concerned that the hype surrounding sequencing, and the generation of what we think are unrealistic expectations, will make those designs vulnerable to attack from those who seem only too keen to make premature and inaccurate pronouncements of failure, who seem desperate to derive straw from nuggets of gold. If, as we believe is likely, it turns out to be quite a few years more before sequencing studies become sufficiently powered to provide large numbers of robust findings, as for GWAS, the consequence could be withdrawal of substantial government funding before those designs have had a chance to live up to their potential. That such an outcome has already largely been achieved for GWAS in some countries might be a source of rejoicing in some quarters, but it should also send out a warning to all who broadly hold the view that understanding the genetics of these disorders is central to understanding their origins, and to improving their future management.

The recent PGC papers represent an impressive, international collaboration based upon methodologies that have a proven track record in delivering important biological insights into other complex disorders, and now in psychiatry. Given the complexity of psychiatric phenotypes, we believe it is likely that a variety of approaches, paradigms, and ideas will be essential for success, including the approaches espoused by those who believe the evidence is compatible with essentially Mendelian inheritance. Inevitably, there will be sincerely held differences of opinion concerning the best way forward, and, of course, in any area of science, reasoned arguments based upon a fair assessment of the evidence are essential. Nevertheless, given there are sufficient uncertainties about what can be realistically delivered in the short term by the newer technologies, we suggest that the cause of bringing benefit to patients will most likely be better served by humility, realism, and a constructive discussion in which there is no place for belittling real achievements, for arrogance, or for dogmatic posturing.


Blackwood DH, Fordyce A, Walker MT, St Clair DM, Porteous DJ, Muir WJ. Schizophrenia and affective disorders--cosegregation with a translocation at chromosome 1q42 that directly disrupts brain-expressed genes: clinical and P300 findings in a family. Am J Hum Genet. 2001 Aug;69(2):428-33. Abstract

International Schizophrenia Consortium Common polygenic variation contributes to risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Nature. 2009 Aug 6;460(7256):748-52. Abstract

Jones L, Holmans PA, Hamshere ML, Harold D, Moskvina V, Ivanov D, et al. Genetic evidence implicates the immune system and cholesterol metabolism in the etiology of Alzheimer's disease. PLoS One. 2010 Nov 15;5(11):e13950. Erratum in: PLoS One. 2011;6(2). Abstract

Kirov G, Rujescu D, Ingason A, Collier DA, O'Donovan MC, Owen MJ. Neurexin 1 (NRXN1) deletions in schizophrenia. Schizophr Bull. 2009 Sep;35(5):851-4. Epub 2009 Aug 12. Review. Abstract

Lango Allen H, Estrada K, Lettre G, Berndt SI, Weedon MN, Rivadeneira F, et al. Hundreds of variants clustered in genomic loci and biological pathways affect human height. Nature. 2010 Oct 14;467(7317):832-8. Abstract

Levinson DF, Duan J, Oh S, Wang K, Sanders AR, Shi J, et al. Copy number variants in schizophrenia: confirmation of five previous findings and new evidence for 3q29 microdeletions and VIPR2 duplications. Am J Psychiatry. 2011 Mar;168(3):302-16. Abstract

McGuffin P, Farmer AE, Rajah SM. Histocompatability antigens and schizophrenia. Br J Psychiatry. 1978 Feb;132:149-51. Abstract

Millar JK, Wilson-Annan JC, Anderson S, Christie S, Taylor MS, Semple CA, et al. Disruption of two novel genes by a translocation co-segregating with schizophrenia. Hum Mol Genet. 2000 May 22;9(9):1415-23. Abstract

Shi J, Levinson DF, Duan J, Sanders AR, Zheng Y, Pe'er I, et al. Common variants on chromosome 6p22.1 are associated with schizophrenia. Nature. 2009 Aug 6;460(7256):753-7. Abstract

St Clair D, Blackwood D, Muir W, Carothers A, Walker M, Spowart G, et al. Association within a family of a balanced autosomal translocation with major mental illness. Lancet. 1990 Jul 7;336(8706):13-6. Abstract

Stefansson H, Ophoff RA, Steinberg S, Andreassen OA, Cichon S, Rujescu D, et al Common variants conferring risk of schizophrenia. Nature. 2009 Aug 6;460(7256):744-7. Abstract

The Schizophrenia Psychiatric Genome-Wide Association Study (GWAS) Consortium. Genome-wide association study identifies five new schizophrenia loci. Nat Genet. 2011 Sep 18;43(10):969-976. Abstract

Williams HJ, Norton N, Dwyer S, Moskvina V, Nikolov I, Carroll L, et al. Fine mapping of ZNF804A and genome-wide significant evidence for its involvement in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Mol Psychiatry. 2011 Apr;16(4):429-41. Abstract

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Related News: GWAS Goes Bigger: Large Sample Sizes Uncover New Risk Loci, Additional Overlap in Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder

Comment by:  Todd LenczAnil Malhotra (SRF Advisor)
Submitted 11 October 2011
Posted 11 October 2011

It is worth re-emphasizing that efforts such as the Psychiatric GWAS Consortium do not rule out potentially important discoveries from alternative strategies such as endophenotypic approaches or examination of rare variants. Indeed, such strategies will be necessary to understand the functional mechanisms implicated by GWAS hits.

Moreover, we note that the two recently published PGC papers were not designed to exclude a role for previously identified candidate loci such as DISC1 (Hodgkinson et al., 2004), or prior GWAS findings such as rs1344706 at ZNF804A (Williams et al., 2011). For both these loci, and many others that have been proposed, meta-analysis of available samples suggest very small effect sizes (OR ~1.1), as might be expected for common variants. As noted in Supplementary Table S12 of the schizophrenia PGC paper (Ripke et al., 2011), the currently available sample size (~9,000 cases/~12,000 controls) of the discovery cohort was still underpowered to detect variants with odds ratios of 1.1, especially if they have a minor allele frequency of 20 percent or below.

An instructive example arises from the field of diabetes genetics. An association of a missense variant (rs1801282, Pro12Ala) in PPARG to type 2 diabetes was first reported in a sample of n = 91 Japanese-American patients (Deeb et al., 1998). Many subsequent studies failed to replicate the effect, and the initial large GWAS meta-analysis (involving >14,000 cases and ~18,000 controls; Zeggini et al., 2007) only detected the association at a p-value that would be considered non-significant by today’s standard (p =1.7*10-6). Interestingly, the authors deemed the association to be “confirmed,” and the result was widely accepted within that field. Subsequent meta-analysis, involving twice as many subjects (total n = 67,000), finally obtained conventional genomewide levels of significance (p <5*10-8; Gouda et al., 2010).


Deeb SS, Fajas L, Nemoto M, Pihlajamäki J, Mykkänen L, Kuusisto J, Laakso M, Fujimoto W, Auwerx J. A Pro12Ala substitution in PPARgamma2 associated with decreased receptor activity, lower body mass index and improved insulin sensitivity. Nat Genet. 1998 Nov;20(3):284-7. Abstract

Gouda HN, Sagoo GS, Harding AH, Yates J, Sandhu MS, Higgins JP. The association between the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma2 (PPARG2) Pro12Ala gene variant and type 2 diabetes mellitus: a HuGE review and meta-analysis. Am J Epidemiol. 2010 Mar 15;171(6):645-55. Abstract

Hodgkinson CA, Goldman D, Jaeger J, Persaud S, Kane JM, Lipsky RH, Malhotra AK. Disrupted in schizophrenia 1 (DISC1): association with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder. Am J Hum Genet. 2004 Nov;75(5):862-72. Abstract

Williams HJ, Norton N, Dwyer S, Moskvina V, Nikolov I, Carroll L, Georgieva L, Williams NM, Morris DW, Quinn EM, Giegling I, Ikeda M, Wood J, Lencz T, Hultman C, Lichtenstein P, Thiselton D, Maher BS; Molecular Genetics of Schizophrenia Collaboration (MGS) International Schizophrenia Consortium (ISC), SGENE-plus, GROUP, Malhotra AK, Riley B, Kendler KS, Gill M, Sullivan P, Sklar P, Purcell S, Nimgaonkar VL, Kirov G, Holmans P, Corvin A, Rujescu D, Craddock N, Owen MJ, O'Donovan MC. Fine mapping of ZNF804A and genome-wide significant evidence for its involvement in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Mol Psychiatry. 2011 Apr;16(4):429-41. Abstract

Zeggini E, Weedon MN, Lindgren CM, Frayling TM, Elliott KS, Lango H, Timpson NJ, Perry JR, Rayner NW, Freathy RM, Barrett JC, Shields B, Morris AP, Ellard S, Groves CJ, Harries LW, Marchini JL, Owen KR, Knight B, Cardon LR, Walker M, Hitman GA, Morris AD, Doney AS; Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium (WTCCC), McCarthy MI, Hattersley AT. Replication of genome-wide association signals in UK samples reveals risk loci for type 2 diabetes. Science. 2007 Jun 1;316(5829):1336-41. Abstract

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Related News: Autism Exome: Lessons for Schizophrenia?

Comment by:  Patrick Sullivan, SRF Advisor
Submitted 20 April 2012
Posted 23 April 2012
  I recommend the Primary Papers

Fascinating papers that likely presage work in the pipeline from multiple groups for schizophrenia. Truly groundbreaking work by some of the best groups in the business. Required reading for those interested in psychiatric genomics.

The identified loci provide important new windows into the neurobiology of ASD.

The results also pertain to the longstanding debate about the nature of ASD: does it result from many individually rare, Mendelian-like variants (potentially a different one in each person) and/or from the summation of the effects of many different common variants of subtle effects?

The multiple rare variant model now seems unlikely for ASD as, contrary to the expectations of some, ASD did not readily resolve into a handful of Mendelian-like diseases. (This comment is of course qualified by the limits of the technologies - which have, however, identified causal mutations for many monogenetic disorders.)

Readers might also want to read Ben Neale's comments on these papers at the Genomes Unzipped website.

View all comments by Patrick Sullivan

Related News: Family Roots for Autism, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder

Comment by:  Bernard Crespi
Submitted 30 July 2012
Posted 30 July 2012

In a new paper in Archives of General Psychiatry that has received considerable media attention, Sullivan et al. (Sullivan et al., 2012) use register data from Sweden and Israel to show higher rates of ASDs among individuals with family histories of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The authors interpret these results as indicating that ASD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder share etiology. This is a very interesting hypothesis that, if supported, would have important implications for our understanding of the genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia in relation to other conditions. However, two alternative hypotheses not involving shared causation may, at least in part, help to explain their results.

First, a recent set of studies demonstrates that drug treatments for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder increase the incidence of ASDs, or their biologically based phenotypic correlates, in offspring. Croen et al. (Croen et al., 2011) reported that prenatal exposure to antidepressants (SSRIs) was associated with a twofold increase in risk of ASD. It is also notable that hyperserotoninemia has also been found in about one-third of autism cases (Burgess et al., 2006). Fetal exposure to the mood stabilizer valproate has been associated with a sevenfold increase in ASD risk (Bromley et al., 2008), and also serves as a model system for autism in animal studies. Use of clozapine and olanzapine during pregnancy has been associated with increased offspring head circumference (Bodén et al., 2012), which represents another well-validated correlate of autism (Courchesne et al., 2011). Moreover, environmental exposure to three psychoactive drugs (fluoxetine, venlafaxine, and carbamazepine) has been demonstrated to cause gene-expression changes that resemble those seen only in autism (Thomas and Klaper, 2012).

These results may help to explain mother-offspring and sib-sib associations of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder with ASDs. Such effects might be expected to be higher than those seen for fathers, but data were not presented in the report by Sullivan et al. on such parental sex differences. Effects of pharmacological treatment of fathers on ASD risk in offspring apparently have yet to be investigated, although paternal effects on offspring psychopathology and epigenetic profiles have been reported with regard to such factors as age (Hultman et al., 2011), and stress (Essex et al., 2011).

Second, the authors' data may also be attributable in part to false-positive diagnoses of premorbidity to schizophrenia (or bipolar disorder) as ASD in children, and conflation of schizotypal personality disorder (SPD) with high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome. Premorbidity to schizophrenia occurs in a notable proportion of cases, and most usually involves "negative symptoms" such as deficits in social interaction and language (discussed in Crespi, 2011). The clearest apparent evidence regarding this hypothesis comes from Sullivan et al. themselves, who noted that in their Study 1, 2,147 individuals had received a diagnosis of both ASD and (at discharge) schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The authors excluded these cases as involving "diagnostic uncertainty." However, such uncertainties in the retained data may still influence the analyses. Thus, to the extent that individuals with diagnoses of ASD are under the age of onset for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, they may exhibit false-positive diagnoses of premorbidity to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder as ASDs. Similar considerations apply to sibs differing in age.

Schizophrenia exhibits well-established genetic, symptomatic, and epidemiological overlap with both schizotypal personality disorder (SPD) and bipolar disorder (Carpenter et al., 2009). Additionally, first-order relatives of individuals with schizophrenia or affective psychosis show elevated rates of SPD (Schürhoff et al., 2005). These results indicate that SPD may show conflation in epidemiological data with high-functioning autism or Asperger's, due to the presence in both SPD and high-functioning forms of ASD of general social deficits and abnormalities. The possibility of such conflation is supported by: 1) the authors' finding that their familial association "was principally in cases without clinical indication of mental retardation," and 2) studies showing behavioral overlap of SPD with ASDs (based predominantly on questionnaires) (Barneveld et al., 2011), but a striking lack of data on overlap for developmental, physiological, or neurological phenotypes. Such conflation would falsely connect ASDs (which are actually SPD) with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It would appear more useful and realistic to consider the possibility and expected effects of diagnostic uncertainties than to presume that they do not exist.

This second set of considerations also applies to studies that would use GWAS data to evaluate hypotheses of how autism and schizophrenia are related to one another; even a rather small degree of false-positive conflation of premorbidity to schizophrenia with ASD could result in incorrect conclusions regarding the genetic etiologies of these sets of conditions. Such potential problems might be minimized by subsetting ASD cases into autism “sensu stricto,” given that PDD-NOS is the diagnostic category most likely to be conflated with schizophrenia premorbidity.


Sullivan PF, Magnusson C, Reichenberg A, Boman M, Dalman C, Davidson M, Fruchter E, Hultman CM, Lundberg M, Långström N, Weiser M, Svensson AC, Lichtenstein P. Family history of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as risk factors for autism. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Jul 2:1-5. Abstract

Croen LA, Grether JK, Yoshida CK, Odouli R, Hendrick V. Antidepressant use during pregnancy and childhood autism spectrum disorders. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011:68(11):1104-1112. Abstract

Burgess NK, Sweeten TL, McMahon WM, Fujinami RS. Hyperserotoninemia and altered immunity in autism. J Autism Dev Disord. 2006:36(5):697-704. Abstract

Bromley RL, Mawer G, Clayton-Smith J, Baker GA; Liverpool and Manchester Neurodevelopment Group. Autism spectrum disorders following in utero exposure to antiepileptic drugs. Neurology. 2008:71(23):1923-4. Abstract

Bodén R, Lundgren M, Brandt L, Reutfors J, Kieler H. Antipsychotics during pregnancy: relation to fetal and maternal metabolic effects. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012:69(7):715-21. Abstract

Courchesne E, Mouton PR, Calhoun ME, Semendeferi K, Ahrens-Barbeau C, Hallet MJ, Barnes CC, Pierce K. Neuron number and size in prefrontal cortex of children with autism. JAMA. 2011:306(18):2001-10. Abstract

Thomas MA, Klaper RD. Psychoactive pharmaceuticals induce fish gene expression profiles associated with human idiopathic autism. PLoS One. 2012;7(6):e32917. Abstract

Hultman CM, Sandin S, Levine SZ, Lichtenstein P, Reichenberg A. Advancing paternal age and risk of autism: new evidence from a population-based study and a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Mol Psychiatry. 2011:16(12):1203-12. Abstract

Essex MJ, Thomas Boyce W, Hertzman C, Lam LL, Armstrong JM, Neumann SM, Kobor MS. Epigenetic vestiges of early developmental adversity: childhood stress exposure and DNA methylation in adolescence. Child Dev. 2011 Sep 2. Abstract

Crespi B. One hundred years of insanity: genomic, psychological, and evolutionary models of autism in relation to schizophrenia. In: Ritsner M, ed. Handbook of Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders, Volume I. New York, NY: Springer; 2011:163-185.

Carpenter WT, Bustillo JR, Thaker GK, van Os J, Krueger RF, Green MJ. The psychoses: cluster 3 of the proposed meta-structure for DSM-V and ICD-11. Psychol Med. 2009: 39(12):2025-42. Abstract

Schürhoff F, Laguerre A, Szöke A, Méary A, Leboyer M. Schizotypal dimensions: continuity between schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. Schizophr Res. 2005:80(2-3):235-42. Abstract

Barneveld PS, Pieterse J, de Sonneville L, van Rijn S, Lahuis B, van Engeland H, Swaab H. Overlap of autistic and schizotypal traits in adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Schizophr Res. 2011:126(1-3):231-6. Abstract

View all comments by Bernard Crespi

Related News: Family Roots for Autism, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder

Comment by:  William Carpenter, SRF Advisor (Disclosure)
Submitted 30 July 2012
Posted 30 July 2012

Shared risk for ASDs in bipolar and schizophrenia families is important, and the apparent gradient in risk with schizophrenia being greater than bipolar may be informative. From the view that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are heterogeneous syndromes, the following is surmised:

View all comments by William Carpenter

Related News: Family Roots for Autism, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder

Comment by:  John McGrath, SRF Advisor
Submitted 30 July 2012
Posted 30 July 2012
  I recommend the Primary Papers

This impressive study adds to the growing body of evidence demonstrating that heritable factors are shared among autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. The authors suggest that genetic factors could underlie the findings, but also remind the reader that environmental factors could play a role. They note that twin-based studies of heritability in schizophrenia and autism have demonstrated appreciable contributions for environmental factors that were shared between the affected individuals—usually referred to as common environmental effects. It should be noted that in this context, the word “common” does not equate with “prevalent.” With respect to shared genetic factors, the growing body of evidence regarding structural variation such as copy number variants is impressive. With respect to non-genetic factors, more work is needed—prenatal infection (which could trigger maternal immune activation) and nutrition (e.g., low vitamin D) might be candidate domains. If there are shared environmental risk factors contributing to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism, and if these were potentially modifiable, then this would be a very attractive proposition from a public health perspective.

The study is also an excellent demonstration of collaborative epidemiology—three datasets from two nations were used to examine the same research questions. This is an efficient way to do science.

View all comments by John McGrath