Researchers at Ohio State University and Nationwide Children’s Hospital have found a genetic link between people with autism and prodigies.

The link shows up as a marker on one of the 23 chromosomes humans have and could provide more clues about how autism and prodigy develop in children.

The finding could help scientists understand autism. And down the road, it could help geneticists understand how to block autism from manifesting in children.

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“It suggests that there’s something we might want to look at,” said Christopher Bartlett, a co-author on the study and principal investigator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to pan out.”

Their findings were published online last month in the journal Human Heredity.

Joanne Ruthsatz is lead author on the study and a psychology professor at OSU’s campus in Mansfield, Ohio.

She became curious about a potential link when she was interviewing prodigies and their families for a book coming out this fall. Prodigies are children who develop professional-level skills before they hit puberty.

Ruthsatz had been with a child prodigy at a McDonald’s near his home, and they’d run into the child’s aunt and first cousin. The child’s cousin had severe autism, she said. “I thought, ‘What is the chance of his first cousin having autism?'”

Prodigies typically have exceptional working memories and exceptional attention to detail, Ruthsatz knew, characteristics they share with some people with autism. She wondered whether the two conditions could be related.

So she interviewed other prodigies’ families and learned that autism had been diagnosed in many of the prodigies’ siblings or first cousins. That’s when she joined with Bartlett and other OSU researchers to study the families’ DNA.

Ruthsatz collected saliva samples from the prodigies, their relatives with autism and relatives who were neither prodigies nor on the spectrum. The research team tested the DNA and found that prodigies and their relatives with autism both have a marker on chromosome 1 that other relatives don’t have.

The researchers don’t know exactly what the marker is or what it means — this study was relatively small, covering only 11 families — but they are conducting a larger study now.

Ruthsatz said she wonders if something about the prodigy gene keeps autism from manifesting.

Bartlett said he hopes the study will encourage people with autism and their families.

“To me, the hope doesn’t necessarily come from the finding,” he said. “To me, the hope comes from the fact that the scientific community has not forgotten that people with autism need help and that research needs to be done in this direction.”

© 2015 The Columbus Dispatch
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