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The Imprinted BrainReview - The Imprinted Brain
How Genes Set the Balance Between Autism and Psychosis
by Christopher Badcock
Jessica Kingsley, 2009
Review by Edmund O'Toole
Feb 9th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 6)

The single most predictive factor for many mental disorders is the sex of the individual, autistic spectrum disorders are more prevalent among males as are more severe forms of psychosis such as paranoid schizophrenia.  Autism has long been associated with deficiencies of social cognition and self awareness but there have been autistic savants of prodigious abilities.  It has often been suggested that autistic traits can be attributed to many men who have proved influential in various spheres of human endeavor, such as science, technology and mathematics.  As Christopher Badcock notes, Asperger syndrome, a high functioning form of Autism, has been called "the engineer's disorder".   The schizophrenic or psychotic spectrum has long been associated with artistically creative and religious personalities.  In this book Badcock makes a forcefully argued proposal, claiming that schizophrenia and autism are mirror opposite syndromes, where genomic imprinting may be the most important predisposing factor. 

Badcock teaches evolutionary psychology and sociobiology at the London School of Economics.  He has written a number of books on psychoanalysis but no longer believes psychoanalysis to be an appropriate approach in explicating such mental disorders.  Badcock covers a wide range of possible influences on genetic expression and contends that autism and schizophrenia are diametrically opposing expressions of paternal or maternal genomic imprinting, a form of heritability that seems to be more applicable to the transmission of such disorders than the classical model of Mendelian inheritance.  The expression of some genes are dependent upon which parent they come from and Badcock offers the evidence of genomic imprinting disorders in support.  The imprinted brain theory argues that conflict between parental genes influences the ontogenic orientation.  A balanced outcome would result in normal development but a maternal or paternal bias will affect the overall characteristic expression of the gene. 

The imprinted brain theory was developed with Bernard Crespi, an evolutionary biologist, and Badcock believes that it could prove to have a significant influence that may go beyond psychiatry, it provides an evolutionary and neuro-developmental account of psychology with applicability, testability and symmetry, features which are generally associated with science and mathematics rather than psychiatry. 

The first disorders of genomic imprinting identified were Prader Willi syndrome and Angelman syndrome.  Both are caused by abnormalities on the very same region of chromosome 15.  Prader Willi Syndrome resulting from a suppression or deletion of the paternal genes and the expression of the maternal genes, Angelman's syndrome is caused by the opposing parental genetic configuration in the same imprinting region.  While these disorders are distinctly different, Badcock emphasizes the symptoms of these disorders can be characterized as diametrically different. 

Other examples and the evidence of genomic imprinting suggests a antagonistic relation between the paternal and maternal genes, this is the basis for the parental conflict theory of genomic imprinting; there may be conflictual demands made by the paternal or maternal genes and, from a symptomatic perspective, they implicate the sexual influence in expression.  This pertains to physiological and behavioral manifestation that implicate some strategic benefits for the interest of the particular parent.  This could be interpreted from strategies of natural selection that are relevant for the parental sex; such as the maternal influencing orientation, the need for limiting size and the demand for resources of the foetus, while the opposite may be paternally favored.  This can be implied from some imprinting disorders examined in the relation to characteristics including brain size and development.  Badcock applies these and other considerations to autism and schizophrenia which shows such contradistinctions, where a reduction in brain size is evident in schizophrenia and an increase is seen in the early development of autism.  Badcock uses these and other indications, from genetic to environmental influences, to support his claims and highlight the sexual dimensions of parental genetic conflict.   

In examining the implications for the orientation of the social brain, Badcock takes an evolutionary approach in explaining divergences between males and females in terms of social cognition, much of this sits well with the attempt to bridge the gap between autism and schizophrenia through genomic imprinting.  Sex plays a large part in social orientation and Badcock distinguishes between the masculine and feminine in terms of mechanistic and mentalistic cognitive styles, such that autism reflects the hyper-mechanistic and psychosis represents the hyper-mentalistic orientation.     Many of the characteristics can be described in in relation to these directions of extreme masculine and feminine orientations of thinking.  Many of these issues are addressed by Badcock's mentalist/mechanistic model.  He examines and contrasts both the dimensions of autism and psychosis along these lines, which also develops the extreme male brain theory, initially proposed by Simon Baron-Cohen, and he introduces the psychotic spectrum as the maternal corollary.

 The relationship between schizophrenia and autism was initially made by one of the founders of psychiatry Eugen Bleuler who had introduced both terms, identifying autism as an important symptomatic feature of schizophrenia.  Autism described the withdrawal from the external world and the preoccupation with self interested concerns.  Bleuler later removed autism as a description for schizophrenia to overcome confusion.  While it is now generally accepted that autism and schizophrenia are distinct, Badcock gives the confusion between the disorders to have been compounded by misdiagnosis.  Yet he considers the symptoms of both to have characteristics that allow them to be distinguished in binary opposition along the lines of extremes, the dimensions of hypo-mentalism/hyper-mechanistic orientation of the autistic are contrasted with the hyper-mentalism/hypo-mechanistic concerns of the schizophrenic.

 In his analysis of psychosis he offers the paranoid schizophrenic as an extreme maternal brain, where delusions and hallucinations could be given as the result of hypermentalistic processes.  The Schreber case, the most sited case of paranoid schizophrenia, was used by Freud to develop his theory of paranoia.  Freud had considered the unconscious homosexuality desire as the source of Schreber's conflict.  For Badcock these issues were conscious and he also believes it points to the feminization of Schreber where maternal genetic expression influenced his cognitive orientation, including his sexuality. 

Babcock relates a broad range of accounts in substantiating his thesis.  He utilizes first person narratives along with scientific studies, giving a full sociobiological perspective of how his theory fits with the evidence.  He takes the possibility of other contributing factors into consideration, from parasitical to environmental, and he synthesizes theoretical interpretations into an coherent structure. Overall he produces a plausible and provocative theory that should stimulate debate and some of his assertions will undoubtedly be controversial, which Badcock acknowledges.  Indeed, Badcock gives new meaning to the schizophrenigic mother, albeit on the genetic level.

The symmetry of his imprinted theory appeals to Badcock, yet he recognizes that tendencies of autism and paranoia can exist together.  Savantism for Badcock can exist on schizoid and autistic dimensions.  Given the mentalist abilities the psychotic savant would be less obviously socially impaired as the autistic savant and may even be very capable of exploiting others.  More importantly, he offers the possibility that extreme paternal brain and an extreme maternal brain can exist simultaneously, which maybe the source of traits of genius, where autistic tendencies are evident in early development and psychosis emerging later.  

The book concentrates on substantiating the theory but it could have been more comprehensive in elaboration.  Much of it is convincing in argument but it gives a uniformed description of psychotic spectrum disorders and autistic spectrum disorders that some may find troubling.  While he comfortably contrasts both direction along mechanistic and mentalistic, some elements are not given a deep enough consideration, he covers a lot of ground but sometimes the material seemed rushed and condensed, with what seemed to be some minor inconsistencies in the details of his analysis.

In developing his mentalistic perspective of "The Gaze" he utilizes the work of Rupert Sheldrake, a proponent of a hyper-mentalism, to use Badcock's expression.  When Badcock mentions that Temple Gardin, an example of mechanistically orientated autistic thinking is "by far the more objective of the two", crediting her with a more scientific approach in her understanding of animals, it seem she was being defended against any charges of mentalism herself.  Which of course she was, since Badcock had acknowledged that Gardin could be accused of hypermentalism for her belief in a quantum karma.  Yet in defending her against against such charges he simply offers another candidate.  Gardin's karmic universe runs contrary to the scientific and religious distinctions Badcock tries to make along the mechanistic and mentalist dimensions, in effect it seemed Badcock was developing a mentalism without balance.  His subsequent distinction of mechanistic superstition as opposed to mentalistic superstition does not seem credible, particularly in respect to Gardin.

He offers Adolf Hitler as being identified as a high functioning autistic and to later claim that psychopaths are not autistic.  Badcock didn't claim that Hitler was a psychopath, so there is no inconsistency there, but to define the differences between the two disorders as one of theory of mind, claimed as evident in psychopathy and absent in autism, may have been a little hasty.  As within the capacity of some who are autistic, theory of mind may be nothing more than a theory of behaviour in some deemed to be psychopathic.  Psychopathy is certainly a prominently male disorder but psychopathy may not be a unitary disorder, some who have been labeled psychopathic reflect schizoid or autistic characteristics.  Yet it is the case not only with the diagnosis of Hitler but other individuals given as being on the autistic spectrum who show a high degree of "mentalism" rather than "mechanistic thinking" that blurs some of the distinctions he tries to make.   

It is with the details of the distinctions which Badcock makes that seem uneven.  He contends that doubt and skepticism can overcome delusional beliefs, a questioning of how rather than why, a mechanistic approach that is the mark of science and autistic detection, "and certainly is the exact opposite of the mentalistic, top-down, holistic style of self deception found in psychosis and in religions both sacred and secular."(p.219)  However the evidence of radical doubt and skepticism in philosophical enquiry and nature has been noted by many to more closely resemble characteristics of schizophrenia rather than autism.

These might be small contentions but there were more and they have a cumulative effect in undermining his conceptualization of the mechanistic and mentalistic dimensions in terms of description.  They may be minor criticisms since it is not the broadly constructed elements of the theory that are problematic and it is in his analysis of genetics and sex that Badcock gives a more complete and rounded analysis.  In this it is hard to disagree with much of his assertions given the evidence.  Badcock does deal with many factors, building his mechanistic/mentalist model from genetics and sex to institutional and cultural levels, even relating it to various psychological schools of thought, such as including a critique of psychoanalysis on the mentalist direction to behaviorism on the mechanistic.

The implications of Badcock's work are bound to be contentious, issues of sex and gender are easily given over to political concerns and are inevitably inflammatory where mental illness and cognition are delineated along such lines.  However, many of the concerns maybe slight in relation to scope of Badcock's account, where evidence for his broadly constructed approach addresses sex, psychiatry and culture.  It is informative and readable book and he does examines the possibility of some claims of inconsistencies with his theory.  What he brings together encourages an evaluation of sex and sociobiology, from issues of brain architecture to the implications for mental disorders.  While the imprinted brain theory may provide a way to re-evaluate psychiatry along sociobiological lines, at the very least he highlights the need to deal with sex and cognition in relation to mental disorders.   

 

© 2010 Edmund O'Toole

 

Edmund O'Toole is a Philosophy PhD student at the National University of Ireland in Galway.


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