Thursday, 16 August 2012

Autism, Intelligence and the Nurtured Brain

Lack of social skills, ritualistic behaviour, excellent memory retention and simply genius are a few traits associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

In the early 1900’s when autism was first coined as a psychological condition sufferers were institutionalised and subjected to all sorts of intervention some as extreme as electric shocks. How unfortunate for the victims at that time. Today, the condition is almost hailed as a scientific beauty.

With the likes of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Alan Turning and Henry Cavendish postulated to suffer from Asperger’s syndrome, one cannot help but question whether autism is a hindrance or a glimpse into the future of human evolution and how much experience or genetics influences this condition. Asperger’s syndrome, named after Hans Asperger is a condition on the autism spectrum characterised by a higher than average level of intelligence and no physical disability.

The one thing the above scientists arguably have in common is their shear ingenuity and apparent lack of social skills. But is that to say that Aspergers’s syndrome is an underlying trait among all brilliant scientific minds or as commonly referred to in today’s society to all geeks and nerds? A traditional geek or nerd is characterised by the lack of friends and poor social skills, attributes associated with autism. They are often very knowledgeable and also have some form of obsessive interest. A typical example being Mark Zuckerberg who has almost revolutionised the face of the internet from what appears to have started with a broken heart as a result of being too geeky and Gary McKinnon another IT professional who is currently facing extradition charges to the USA for what is supposedly the biggest military computer hacking of all time. Notice the nerdy connection? Now, whiles Gary has a confirmed diagnosis of autism from renowned experts, Mark does not and his association to autism is solely based on his social deficiencies and enthusiastic behaviours.   

Even more interestingly, Mark Zuckerbergs’ parents are both scientist with his mother being a psychiatrist and his father being a dentist whereas Gary McKinnon’s parents are neither scientist nor engineers. Nature recently published an article where psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen suggested that children born to scientists and engineers are more likely to suffer from some form of autism. So is the autistic trait exhibited by Mark and Gary due to the environment they grew up in or as a result of a genetic trait?

A mutation in a single gene, HGMA2, has been identified as being responsible for intelligence. HGMA2 has been found in people with larger brains and has a positive correlation with the level of IQ. But if a large brain is associated with high IQ and the likes of Einstein apparently had a smaller than average brain surely his ingenuity must be down to the nurtured brain as supposed to this genetics, bearing in mind that the mutation in HGMA2 only increases IQ by an average of 1.3 points. The high IQ in Einstein’s brain must therefore be due to other factors including the nurturing of this non-mutated HGMA2 gene to behave as if it were in a larger brain to encourage the shift above the average IQ.

In the same way Chinese and Jews are said to have evolved from an intelligent lineage. Could this be solely due to genes or a result of nurtured brains? The Chinese are one disciplined race who are raised to work hard and aspire to be the best.  Surely the abundance of talent in the race must be due to a culture of discipline being nurtured to aspire to be nothing less than the best. There is no official data comparing the prevalence of autism in china to that of the west, hence the link to this intelligent lineage and autism cannot be made in this article. 

But take Britain’s prime ministers for example, 41 out of the 54 prime ministers to date went to one of the Uxbridge colleges. Although they may not always come across as the most intelligent, it’s no secret that entrants into Uxbridge are arguably the brainy bunch. All these prime ministers do not originate from a single parentage so surely their intelligence must be as a result of nurtured brains rather than the natural genes.  Going across the other side of the continent however, US presidents like George Bush and George W Bush, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Quincy Adams and John Adams, Benjamin Harrison and William Henry Harrison originate from a common parentage and their suitability to govern a country could be in the genes.

So is there a genetic basis to ingenuity or is it a simple case of nature versus nurture. As much as the level of one’s intelligence may be due to genetics and the believe that the likes of Einstein found genius through autism, I conclude that even genes, like new-borns still have to be nurtured to be best they can be and nurtured brains are responsible for the high IQ associated with this ingenious scientific beauty we call Autism.


Kimberley Jakoda said...

Very nice post about autism. I have autism myself and I enjoyed reading this post. It's a very interesting read.

hephzia tagoe said...

Glad you enjoyed it.