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Bernard Crespi

Biologist Bernard Crespi suggests a genetic tug of war between a mother’s and father’s genes may be behind mental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

Radical theory attracts global attention

November 27, 2008

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SFU biologist Bernard Crespi has published a revolutionary theory of brain development that could change the way scientists think about mental illness.

In what the New York Times hailed as one of the most significant contributions to psychiatry since Sigmund Freud, Crespi’s work suggests a genetic "tug of war" between a mother’s and father’s genes may be behind mental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

Crespi’s theory, which he developed with help from Christopher Badcock, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, was published recently in the journals Nature and Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and drew world-wide media attention.

It proposes that genes passed on from either parent can steer brain development in one of two directions. A strong bias toward the father leads to development along a more methodical path to what researchers refer to as the autistic spectrum. A bias toward the mother leads to a hypersensitivity to mood changes, and what researchers call the psychotic spectrum, increasing the risk of developing schizophrenia and mood problems later in life.

Even if the theory is flawed, observers say it is likely to provide new insights into the biology of mental illness.

Crespi says the empirical implications are "absolutely huge".

"If you get a gene linked to autism, for instance, you’d want to look at that same gene for schizophrenia. If it is a social brain gene, then it would be expected to have opposite effects on these disorders, whether gene expression was turned up or turned down."

Crespi told the Times that even if the theory is not quickly embraced by the scientific community, he hopes it will have an enduring effect on the overall study of mental disorders.

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