Genius and autism may share genetic link, study finds

Child prodigies and their autistic family members may share a genetic link, according to findings published online for the April issue of Human Heredity.

“We were very excited,” lead researcher Joanne Ruthsatz of Ohio State University told PBS NewsHour about the discovery.

“It was like, here it is, here’s the autism and the prodigies together and they have a significant peak on chromosome 1, where they are significantly different than their non-affected family members.”

For the study, Ruthsatz and her colleagues from Ohio State University, as well as researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus looked at snippets of DNA from five child prodigies and their autistic family members. They found something similar on chromosome 1, the first of 46 chromosomes that humans typically possess.

“This finding suggests that a locus on chromosome 1 increases the likelihood of both prodigy and autism in these families,” the study said.

Each of the prodigies in Ruthsatz’s latest study had between one and five family members diagnosed with some form of autism.

Now that the researchers have found this similarity, they are in the midst of having a full genome sequencing done to see what in a genius’s DNA may prevent him or her from becoming autistic.

Ruthsatz told PBS NewsHour that she believes prodigies may produce a protein that helps them hold back the deficits of autism and allow their talents to shine through.

This hunt for protective genetic mutations is part of a fairly new movement in genetics research. Before, investigators focused on the bad genes that cause disease, not the good ones that may thwart the bad.

Toward the end of 2014, The New York Times wrote about this new research trend and the work of The Resilience Project. The project and others like it have been looking for protective mutations in order to develop drugs to mimic their behaviors and combat diseases like early-onset Alzheimer’s, Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

Ruthsatz hopes to complete the full genome sequencing in a few months and find the protective prodigy protein she has been searching for since the late 1990s.

“If we find the prodigy gene… it will be published immediately,” Ruthsatz said.