Geeks and autism: is our progeny doomed?

Shocking by flipping cultural sensibilities must run in the Baron-Cohen family. Sacha, aka Borat, made us cringe with his Cultural Learnings of America. His first cousin,  Simon Baron-Cohen has gained notoriety in scientific circles with his assortive mating theory of autism. It gained him much popular media interest, including an article in Time Magazine. According to this theory, the rise of autism in recent times is credited to the geeks of the world (1) sharing some common traits that include the lack of social skills and (2) having more of an opportunity to mate, feminism having gained women entry into the nerdy echelons of scientific and engineering and all.

The last week’s autism special issue of Nature featured an article that gave us geeks mixed hope that it may not be all doom and gloom for our children. First it pointed out to the weaknesses of Baron-Cohen’s methods – reliance on surveys instead of actual tests. For instance a survey question that asked if a test subject is obsessed with details has some self-perceptive bias, as opposed to a concrete test that would measure the obsession with details. Second weakness has to do with a selection bias, Baron-Cohen has a tendency to seek test subjects in places like Cambridge, MIT.

So are geeks hot crucibles of autistic genes? Yes and no. Other researchers found that autistic traits cluster more in houses where parents tend to have advanced degrees, rather than merely IT enclaves like Silicon Valley. This might have to do with these folks having kids at a later age, when nature tends to dole out the grungiest gene combinations for the poor kiddos. If you are a young geek – either get busy now, or don’t mate with other older geeks later in life. At 28 and 33, for me and Mr. MD PhD, other than deciding not to reproduce, this advice might be too late.

In other autism news, there was an article in JAMA about autistic children having more brain cells. According to this report:

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, found that autistic children have about 67% more nerve cells in a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex than children without autism. The prefrontal cortex is involved in processing social skills, communication, cognitive functions and language — all areas in which autistic children often show abnormal development.

Most of the brain thinking action happens at synapses, the connection between neurons. In normal children, the brain undergoes a pruning after birth, where the number of neurons/synapses get reduced to a manageable number. It’s like the brain decides, there are five different wires to transmit this information, lets cut it down to one so there is no waste of time thinking which wire to send the message down. Not so much in children with autism. Fascinating thinking about the biological mechanism of the disease and why older people with STEM degrees would have children where this gets triggered!

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  • Legalese

    The purpose of this blog is to share interesting bits from around the web and beyond. All opinions expressed on this site are my own, unless credited to someone else. The images and artwork have also been created by me, unless credited to the sources. Oh! And please don't hold me liable for your actions resulting from any information on this site. As with everything else on the internet, read with the requisite amount of skepticism.
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