Scientists have found evidence of a genetic link between autism and schizophrenia, demonstrating that a relationship exists between the two conditions, and possibly others. The first signs of a connection between the the mental illnesses on the genetic level were observed in 2012, but research published earlier this year was able to pinpoint a specific mutation that is a causative factor in both schizophrenia and autism.
"This is a really exciting finding as it suggests that neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism, which hitherto have been seen as different diseases may involve common underlying disease mechanisms," said Aiden Corvin, a professor at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and a lead researcher in the study, in a statement. "This may have implications in the future for how we conceptualize and treat these conditions." It might mean, for instance, that treatments can be developed that specifically act on the effects of the mutation, the underlying problem, rather than the current hit-or-miss approach designed to address the symptoms of schizophrenia, and the training and cognitive treatments used for autism.
Schizophrenia may be the prototypical mental illness—it is the symptoms of schizophrenia that the phrase "mental illness" brings to mind for many people. This is because it is among the most common. However, autism is diagnosed in one in 88 people, a number growing as awareness of autism spectrum disorders spreads and people become more familiar with the condition and better able to recognize the signs. The conditions do have some overlap in symptoms. Neither schizophrenic nor autistic people have an easy time functioning normally in social situations. People with schizophrenia have difficulty because they are not properly perceiving reality; autistic people have trouble reading social cues.
In fact, in some cases, the difference between autism and schizophrenia may be down to what the person offering the diagnosis is looking for. The scientists involved in the 2012 study recognized the similarities. They also found that not only are the relatives of a schizophrenic person more prone to schizophrenia themselves, siblings of people who ha also have 12 times the risk of autism.