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A Personal Interest in Autism

Question: How did you become interested \r\nin autism?


Michael Wigler: My personal interest in\r\n autism dates\r\nfrom when I was a child, and I had a friend whose brother was quite\r\nstrange.  And when I was in medical\r\nschool, I realized that he had autism. \r\nIt was actually Asperger’s. He was a very bright kid, never \r\nlooked you\r\nin the face, constantly was throwing his arms up like that as though he \r\nhad\r\nmade some great discovery; and knew everything about baseball \r\nstatistics. And so it made an imprint on me at an\r\nearly age. And it’s sort of a\r\nwonderful, it was sort of a wonderful thing to see this fellow who \r\nactually\r\ngrew up to, I think he had a successful career as a disc jockey.  So, I was always interested in autism\r\nand because I come from a family that’s somewhat left-wing, always \r\nlooking for\r\nways I can do something that is a benefit to society.  And\r\n it struck me that autism was not a disorder that was\r\nstudied by the scientific community very deeply.  But\r\n in the worst cases, it was tragic for the families that\r\nhad an autistic child. 


So, I was motivated by both of those things to have\r\n an\r\ninterest in autism.  And when we\r\nbegan to study cancer, which was in the early 1980’s, I knew at the time\r\n they\r\nwere studying cancer that the tools that we were developing could later \r\nbe\r\napplied to genetic disorders.  Not\r\nthe kind of genetic disorders where you inherit something from your \r\nparents,\r\nbut the kind of genetic disorders that arise spontaneously because of \r\nmutation\r\nin the parent’s germ line. 


An example of those kinds of mutations that \r\neverybody’s\r\nfamiliar with is Down syndrome; or Trisomy 21 I guess is the clinically\r\ncorrect way to refer to it.  These\r\nare new mutations.  You don’t\r\ninherit it in the classical sense, but it was obvious to people who \r\nthought\r\nabout it that human genome is not static; it changes over time.  That’s how we evolve.  And most \r\nof those changes are not\r\ngood.  They result in some disorder\r\nor another, but they’re hard to study. \r\nMost people who study genetic disorders study inherited kinds of \r\ngenetic\r\ndisorders.  I was interested in the\r\nother kind of genetic disorders that result from new mutation.  And new mutations are what we study\r\nwhen we look at cancers.  When\r\nwe’re comparing a cancer to the normal person’s genome, the cancers \r\ndiffer by\r\nnew mutation.  That’s called\r\nsomatic mutation. 


The same tools that find somatic mutation can find \r\ngerm line mutations if you compare the child to the parents.  The\r\n incidence of autism being relatively high—and by and large, these \r\nchildren are so different from their parents—it seemed to me that it was\r\n likely, just a priori, that autism was the result of new mutation in \r\nthe germ line\r\npossibly affecting many, many, many genes that result in the same end \r\nbehavior,\r\nor similar end behaviors, and that was being ignored by the community. 


So, when we had the tools to go look at this, we \r\ndid\r\nso.  And so it was a combination of\r\nopportunism because we had developed the tools, and intrinsic interest \r\nfrom\r\nboth a social point of view, the social good, and also from a personal \r\npoint of\r\nview.  That is, I had a personal\r\ninterest in how does the brain go from being what we would recognize as\r\nbelonging to a normal person to somebody who is, in wondrous ways, very\r\ndifferent from us.

The brother of a childhood friend inspired Michael Wigler’s research into the minds of those who are, "in wondrous ways, very different from us."

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