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Family Roots for Autism, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder

27 July 2012. The clinical demarcations among autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder are not set in stone, and a new study suggests they have shared roots. Published online July 2 in Archives of General Psychiatry, the study finds that having a first-degree relative with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder increased risk for autism in three separate samples, with odds ratios ranging from 1.5 to 12.

Led by Patrick Sullivan of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the study echoes and extends an earlier Danish study that found having a parent with schizophrenia was a significant risk factor for autism (Larsson et al., 2005). The findings hint at common causes behind the disorders—an idea consistent with recent genomic findings in which certain rare copy number variants (CNVs) boost risk for both autism and schizophrenia (e.g., 3q29, 15q13.3, 16p11.2) (see SRF related news story and SRF news story; Malhotra and Sebat, 2012). Given emerging evidence for common etiology between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (ISC, 2009), the new study also considers a family history of bipolar disorder. Whether such shared risk factors—genetic or environmental—can produce distinct clinical outcomes, or whether they call attention to phenotypic commonalities between these disorders (e.g., autism was once considered childhood schizophrenia) remains unclear.

Swedish and Israeli samples
First author Sullivan and colleagues in Sweden and Israel evaluated the family histories of people with autism identified in three samples: 25,432 cases from the National Patient Register in Sweden, 4,982 cases culled from ASD treatment center records in Stockholm County in Sweden, and 386 cases from conscript records in Israel, which contain medical and psychiatric assessments to determine a person’s eligibility for mandatory military service. For comparison, for each autism case the researchers identified 10 controls matched for sex, age, birth year, and sex of relatives in the Swedish samples; in the Israeli sample, the researchers looked at groups of two or more siblings who did not have an autism diagnosis.

The researchers found an association between autism and a family history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. For example, in the Swedish national sample, having a parent or sibling with schizophrenia increased the odds of autism, giving an odds ratio (OR) of 2.9 in the case of a parent, and 2.6 in the case of a sibling. Similarly, having a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder resulted in ORs of 1.9 and 2.5, respectively. The Stockholm County sample results were similar, though they tracked only parent history: having a parent with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder yielded ORs of 2.9 and 1.6, respectively.

Within the Israeli sample, the researchers focused on whether having a sibling with schizophrenia was a risk factor for autism, and found a whopping increase in risk, with an OR of 12. This was accompanied by large confidence intervals, though, which the researchers surmise reflect the smaller sample size of this group. They also mention that, because these conscript assessments are conducted at 17 years of age, those with a schizophrenia diagnosis likely have an earlier-onset form, which may confer greater risk.

Without mental retardation
Family history seemed associated with the type of autism not accompanied by mental retardation, according to information available in the Stockholm County sample. For autism cases without mental retardation, ORs for a parent with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder were 2.6 and 1.5, respectively—higher than ORs obtained for autism cases with mental retardation, which were 1.6 and 1.1 for parental schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, respectively.

Combined with the previous Danish study, this makes four samples with evidence for family history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder as a risk factor for autism. This consistency firms up the association, which may encourage researchers to cast a wider net across multiple psychiatric diseases in searching for the explanations of one of these disorders. Such etiological overlap also suggests looking harder at the current clinical definitions of these disorders, which may have more in common than typically appreciated.—Michele Solis.

Sullivan PF, Magnusson C, Reichenberg A, Boman M, Dalman C, Davidson M, Fruchter E, Hultman CM, Lundberg M, Lĺngström N, Weiser M, Svensson AC, Lichtenstein P. Family History of Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder as Risk Factors for AutismFamily History of Psychosis as Risk Factor for ASD. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Jul 2:1-5. Abstract

Comments on News and Primary Papers
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, Lĺngström 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 CrespiComment 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 CarpenterComment 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

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 Prćcox 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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Sprong M, Becker HE, Schothorst PF, Swaab H, Ziermans TB, Dingemans PM, Linszen D, van Engeland H. Pathways to psychosis: a comparison of the pervasive developmental disorder subtype Multiple Complex Developmental Disorder and the "At Risk Mental State". Schizophr Res. 2008 Feb;99(1-3):38-47. Abstract

Starling J, Dossetor D. Pervasive developmental disorders and psychosis. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2009 Jun;11(3):190-6. Abstract

Stefansson H, Rujescu D, Cichon S, Pietiläinen OP, Ingason A, Steinberg S, Fossdal R, Sigurdsson E, Sigmundsson T, Buizer-Voskamp JE, Hansen T, Jakobsen KD, Muglia P, Francks C, Matthews PM, Gylfason A, Halldorsson BV, Gudbjartsson D, Thorgeirsson TE, Sigurdsson A, Jonasdottir A, Jonasdottir A, Bjornsson A, Mattiasdottir S, Blondal T, Haraldsson M, Magnusdottir BB, Giegling I, Möller HJ, Hartmann A, Shianna KV, Ge D, Need AC, Crombie C, Fraser G, Walker N, Lonnqvist J, Suvisaari J, Tuulio-Henriksson A, Paunio T, Toulopoulou T, Bramon E, Di Forti M, Murray R, Ruggeri M, Vassos E, Tosato S, Walshe M, Li T, Vasilescu C, Mühleisen TW, Wang AG, Ullum H, Djurovic S, Melle I, Olesen J, Kiemeney LA, Franke B; GROUP, Sabatti C, Freimer NB, Gulcher JR, Thorsteinsdottir U, Kong A, Andreassen OA, Ophoff RA, Georgi A, Rietschel M, Werge T, Petursson H, Goldstein DB, Nöthen MM, Peltonen L, Collier DA, St Clair D, Stefansson K. Large recurrent microdeletions associated with schizophrenia. Nature. 2008 Sep 11;455(7210):232-6. Abstract

Sugihara G, Tsuchiya KJ, Takei N. Distinguishing broad autism phenotype from schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. J Autism Dev Disord. 2008 Nov;38(10):1998-9; author reply 2000-1. Abstract

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

Weiss LA, Shen Y, Korn JM, Arking DE, Miller DT, Fossdal R, Saemundsen E, Stefansson H, Ferreira MA, Green T, Platt OS, Ruderfer DM, Walsh CA, Altshuler D, Chakravarti A, Tanzi RE, Stefansson K, Santangelo SL, Gusella JF, Sklar P, Wu BL, Daly MJ; Autism Consortium. Association between microdeletion and microduplication at 16p11.2 and autism. N Engl J Med. 2008 Feb 14;358(7):667-75. Abstract

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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: Chromosomal Mishaps in Autism Harbor Schizophrenia Candidate Genes

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

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Related News: Chromosomal Mishaps in Autism Harbor Schizophrenia Candidate Genes

Comment 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.

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Related News: Chromosomal Mishaps in Autism Harbor Schizophrenia Candidate Genes

Comment 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.


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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

Feinstein C, Singh S. Social phenotypes in neurogenetic syndromes. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2007;16(3):631-47. Abstract

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Kanner L. 1968;2:217–250. Abstract

King BH, Lord C. Is schizophrenia on the autism spectrum? Brain Res. 2011;1380:34-41. 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;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

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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

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