The media accurately described a recent study from Dan Geschwind’s lab at UCLA as “groundbreaking”. That’s because the findings help people with autism better understand how and why their symptoms are different to other mental conditions, specifically bipolar depression and schizophrenia. It turns out the gene expression patterns in the brains of people with autism are similar to those with bipolar depression and schizophrenia, but not alcoholism or major depression. It also offers hope for a more accurate biological signature of autism that can be distinguished from bipolar depression and schizophrenia. Below is a graph that represents these different profiles, and if you want to read a version of the article that is available online (but before it was peer reviewed in the journal Science) you can find it here: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2016/02/18/040022.full.pdf
One of areas of genetic interest of autism is a region of chromosome 15. Only about 3% of people with autism have the mutation, but 80% of those with the mutation have autism. It is so important that people with duplications of this area have formed their own advocacy group called the Dup15 Alliance. I was honored to attend their family an scientific meeting and give a summary of what scientists have learned about autism through studying this chromosome, how kids with this mutation and autism are similar and different from those with autism but not the mutation, how the families are managing life threatening seizures, what the gene does, what the brains look like, and how mutations of this chromosome do in fact interact with the environment. Thank you to the scientists who study this area and the very brave, selfless and amazing parents who I talked to.