Yale Researchers Find That Autism Genes Helped Us to Become Smarter

The study might also help us to identify the prodigy gene, should it exist.

 

 

Autistic savant Daniel Tammet.
British autistic savant Daniel Tammet. Getty Images.

Those with autism face distinct challenges. These usually have to do with certain social deficits. That might be why the results of a new study appear a bit puzzling. Genes linked to autism spectrum disorders (ASD) were actually preserved through the process of evolution, Yale researchers concluded. These genes actually made us smarter.


If you find these results strange, consider the large numbers of scientists and engineers known to have Asperger's syndrome. There are autistic savants as well, as the movie Rain Man can attest, which was based on a true story. Or perhaps you've seen the work of mind-blowing artist Stephen Wiltshire, who can draw panoramic scenes of whole cities with perfect detail, from his memory alone.

This was a genome-wide study, zeroing in on gene variants associated with ASD. Researchers examined 5,000 cases of autism and analyzed the genome of each participant. They focused on evolutionary gene selection, particularly on which genes were positively selected. One clue which led researchers to these findings was that, more genes associated with autism were preserved by evolution than would have been through sheer randomness.

British autistic savant Stephen Wiltshire. Getty Images.

That's not all. Through molecular testing, scientists discovered that such genes were associated with more neuronal connections and the prodigious growth of new neurons. The more neurons or connections a person has within their brain, the greater their intellectual performance. Those genes which negatively impact reproduction are usually axed from the genome, as per the laws of natural selection. Some gene variants have a muted effect. These can be positive or negative. Variants which aid survival are usually carried forth, and passed down through the generations. It's thought that many of the genes related to ASD are of this variety.

Professor Joel Gelernter was the study's co-author. He is a professor of psychiatry, genetics, and neuroscience, at the Yale School of Medicine. He said, “It might be difficult to imagine why the large number of gene variants that together give rise to traits like ASD are retained in human populations — why aren't they just eliminated by evolution?" He went on, “The idea is that during evolution these variants that have positive effects on cognitive function were selected, but at a cost — in this case an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders."

This isn't the only study linking higher intellectual aptitude with ASD. A 2015 Ohio State University study found that geniuses and their autistic relatives share a particular genetic feature. A certain peak on chromosome 1 increases the likelihood either of autism or an advanced intellect. One theory is that geniuses may have a certain gene that protects them against ASD. Theoretically, a drug mimicking the protein produced by that gene could tamp down or even eliminate autistic behaviors. But researchers haven't discovered a prodigy gene, thus far.

To see one autistic savant in action, click here:

Were the ancient Egyptians black or white? Scientists now know

This is the first successful DNA sequencing on ancient Egyptian mummies, ever.

 

Ancient Egyptian Statues

Getty Images
Surprising Science

Egyptologists, writers, scholars, and others, have argued the race of the ancient Egyptians since at least the 1970's. Some today believe they were Sub-Saharan Africans. We can see this interpretation portrayed in Michael Jackson's 1991 music video for “Remember the Time" from his "Dangerous" album. The video, a 10-minute mini-film, includes performances by Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson.

Keep reading Show less

'Ghost forests' visible from space spread along the coast as sea levels rise

Seawater is raising salt levels in coastal woodlands along the entire Atlantic Coastal Plain, from Maine to Florida.

Photo by Anqi Lu on Unsplash
Surprising Science
Trekking out to my research sites near North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, I slog through knee-deep water on a section of trail that is completely submerged.
Keep reading Show less

Why professional soccer players choke during penalty kicks

A new study used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure brain activity as inexperienced and experienced soccer players took penalty kicks.

PORTLAND, OREGON - MAY 09: Diego Valeri #8 of Portland Timbers reacts after missing a penalty kick in the second half against the Seattle Sounders at Providence Park on May 09, 2021 in Portland, Oregon.

Abbie Parr via Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • The new study is the first to use in-the-field imaging technology to measure brain activity as people delivered penalty kicks.
  • Participants were asked to kick a total of 15 penalty shots under three different scenarios, each designed to be increasingly stressful.
  • Kickers who missed shots showed higher activity in brain areas that were irrelevant to kicking a soccer ball, suggesting they were overthinking.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast