Sunday, January 18, 2009

The quest for a perfect embroyo

The Sunday Times has an interesting piece on the the future of prenatal testing based on the announcement in the British Journal of Psychology that high levels of testosterone in the womb were linked to babies having a higher risk of developing autistic traits.

"The news last week that prenatal testing for autism might be on the cards was rather spun out of shape: we are not on the verge of a test — not right now, anyway – but work by the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University shows we are heading that way.

The team found that babies exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb had a higher risk of developing autistic traits. Previous research had shown that high levels of testosterone were associated with less eye contact by a child’s first birthday, slower language development by their second birthday, more peer difficulties by their fourth birthday and more difficulties with empathy by their sixth birthday.

The new study, reported in an article for the British Journal of Psychology, links testosterone to poor social skills and imagination and good attention to, and memory for, detail, as well as a love of repetition. The findings all seem to be heading towards one conclusion, which is (to paraphrase and condense wildly) that autism is a sort of extreme form of the “male brain”.

Discussing the findings, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the centre, said: “It is important to note that this research does not demonstrate that elevated foetal testosterone is associated with a clinical diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s syndrome; to do that would need a sample size of thousands, not hundreds. Our ongoing collaboration with the Biobank in Denmark will enable us to test that link in the future.”

This last sentence was used to suggest that pregnant women will soon be able to undergo tests that detect autism in their unborn child, just as embryos can be tested for Down’s syndrome. But autism is not straightforward, by which I mean it doesn’t boil down to a single gene doing odd things, or duplicating itself, or having bits of material slide off it. "