Gene modification through lifestyle?

I recently helped a friend do some research on autism.  I was amazed by what I found – this condition, about which I knew very little before, has already been labelled an epidemic in America.

Autism, and a milder version called Aspergers, are part of what is called “autistic spectrum disorder”.  The symptoms range from mild to catastrophic, and though even children diagnosed with severe autism can benefit from structured education and therapy, and there is no shortage of geniuses who come from this category, to achieve this, a huge amount of energy and dedicated professional time is required.  It can cost upwards of $60,000 per year per child, and although it might reveal a finely honed skill as the adult emerges from these years of specialised care, the child suffers profoundly in a lonely world, and must learn many things by rote which normal children can cope with almost without thinking.  Despite success stories, autism is without question a severe disability, and costly – about $70,000 a year is needed for special education – more than a million dollars to see a child through to the age of 18.

The condition is as different as people are – every case varies in symptoms and abilities.  But the basic characteristics are always present to some degree, which enables those with ASD to be so classified.  They tend towards a higher focus on detail than on social and emotional understanding.  The brain seems to lack the ability to form new connections easily – meaning that, for example, sudden noises remain disturbing long after a normal child has adapated to them.  Routines become a survival mechanism and there is an inability to generalise.  Telling a child he must not cross a road without looking might be interpreted as a rule applying only to that road, or even to that time of day; a child might refuse to use a toilet at school which looks different from their toilet at home, and so on.

The remarkable thing is that the numbers of those diagnosed with ASD is growing at such an alarming pace – better diagnosis explains only a very small part of the trend.  Those in the teaching profession confirm that 20 years ago, autistic children would have been labelled autistic, and cases were knonw to be very rare.  But now, schools are seeing new cases every day.  Whereas formerly 1 in 10,000 births were “autistic”, it can now be applied to 1 in 150 children.  This is a shocking increase.  Most remarkably, the increases in the Silicon Valley area – the most concentrated high tech area in the world – have been even more dramatic, and have started to panic the health care profession.  Wired magazine recently wrote an article called “The Geek Syndrome” which pointed this out:

In the past decade, there has been a significant surge in the number of kids diagnosed with autism throughout California. In August 1993, there were 4,911 cases of level-one autism logged in the state’s Department of Developmental Services system. This figure doesn’t include kids with Asperger’s, but only those who have received a diagnosis of classic autism. In the mid-’90s, this caseload started spiraling up. In 1999, the number of clients was more than double what it had been six years earlier. Then the curve started spiking. By July 2001, there were 15,441 clients in the DDS database. Now there are more than seven new cases of level-one autism – 85 percent of them children – entering the system every day.

The chilling possibility is that what’s happening now is the first proof that the genes responsible for bestowing certain special gifts on slightly autistic adults – the very abilities that have made them dreamers and architects of our technological future – are capable of bringing a plague down on the best minds of the next generation. For parents employed in prominent IT firms here, the news of increased diagnoses of autism in their ranks is a confirmation of rumors that have quietly circulated for months. Every day, more and more of their coworkers are running into one another in the waiting rooms of local clinics, taking the first uncertain steps on a journey with their children that lasts for the rest of their lives.

In previous eras, even those who recognized early that autism might have a genetic underpinning considered it a disorder that only moved diagonally down branches of a family tree. Direct inheritance was almost out of the question, because autistic people rarely had children. The profoundly affected spent their lives in institutions, and those with Asperger’s syndrome tended to be loners. They were the strange uncle who droned on in a tuneless voice, tending his private logs of baseball statistics or military arcana; the cousin who never married, celibate by choice, fussy about the arrangement of her things, who spoke in a lexicon mined [from] reading dictionaries cover to cover.

The dramatic increase in Silicon Valley points to two things.  First, it’s obvious that geeks there are more likely to meet and marry geeks, so if the genetic mechanism that intelligently selects the best parts from both partners now can’t find a best part, the child is left with a faulty genetic code.  The same thing happens when close relatives marry: faulty parts common to both partners mean the child is liable to be disabled in some way.  Or in “incestuous” social groups: living in North London in the 1980’s, I was puzzled at how common it was to see the small children of Orthodox Jews wearing glasses with extraordinarily thick lenses.  This was a daily occurrence and I puzzled over it until I found that the Orthodox are strictly limited to marrying only each other, and then I understood if their gene pool became shallower, the sorts of health problems normally sorted out by some built-in optimal gene selection mechanism would naturally become more frequent.

The problem now with the sacred randomness of Darwinism  or Dawkinism becomes apparent: these are not random mutations.  Here we have a pattern, and one which is precisely the opposite of what could reasonably be expected from an affluent, intelligent and successful background: severe damage in the genes.

In previous generations, autistic children didn’t marry – they were often put in homes, written off as human wreckage.  But since these Silicon Valley high tech adults are still highly functioning people – holding down jobs, communicating, marrying, earning good incomes – then the second conclusion is that if their children are profoundly autistic (for example, to the point where they might learn only 20 words by the age of 9) it means the adults must have altered their genetic code by something as seemingly innocuous as voluntarily reducing the social interaction and creating a more reclusive, detail – focused, technically friendly but socially withdrawn life.

I realise now how lucky I was to meet and marry a woman who was completely different than me – maybe as a result of that, our kids have great social abilities, physical co-ordination and excellent health, none of which I ever had (I didn’t even crawl as a baby – apparently I just sat there getting fat, until at a year old I surprised my parents by grasping a chair and managing to stand upright), but also the musical and artistic skills which I developed over the course of my life.  If I burnt out some of my genes by so many years focusing on software, perhaps I didn’t cause lasting damage.

Since genetic issues are essentially supremely intricate engineering problems, the mechanism behind this “emotional life – to – genes” translation must be very complicated.  But the tendency to look for solutions comprised of tiny details in a situation which is easy enough to grasp is also a sign of our micro-managing tendencies.  Some researchers, instead of making common sense recommendations – like: stop leading such a distorted lifestyle, get out and socialise, and don’t marry people so much like yourself – are talking of improving gene therapies and diagnostic techniques as a way forward – a classic small solution which creates a bigger problem. God help us!

The trend points to a stunning conclusion: those qualities magnified by parents in their own lives, seem to solidify within the genes into a base level at which their children are born, and if no chance is given for the genes to correct themselves, are stuck with for good.

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
This entry was posted in Brain damage, Evolution, Science and Religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gene modification through lifestyle?

  1. Pingback: PLoS One. 2011 Feb 17;6(2):e16715. | Autism diagnosis Blog

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