Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), a category that includes autism, Asperger syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, are characterized by difficulty with social interaction and communication, or repetitive behaviors. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Management says that one in 88 children in the U.S. is somewhere on the autism spectrum — an alarming ten-fold increase in the last four decades. New research by Dr. Mark Weiser of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Sheba Medical Center has revealed that ASD appears to share a root cause with other mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. At first glance, schizophrenia and autism may look like completely different illnesses, he says. But closer inspection reveals many common traits, including social and cognitive dysfunction and a decreased ability to lead normal lives and function in the real world. Studying extensive databases in Israel and Sweden, the researchers discovered that the two illnesses have a genetic link, representing a heightened risk within families. They found that people who have a schizophrenic sibling are 12 times more likely to have autism than those with no schizophrenia in the family. The presence of bipolar disorder in a sibling showed a similar pattern of association, but to a lesser degree. A scientific leap forward, this study sheds new light on the genetics of these disorders. The results will help scientists better understand the genetics of mental illness, says Dr. Weiser, and may prove to be a fruitful direction for future research. The findings were published online during July 2012 in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Researchers used three data sets, one in Israel and two in Sweden, to determine the familial connection between schizophrenia and autism.
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