Last month’s tragic killing of 20 children and 6 educators at a Newtown elementary school quickly generated speculation about possible links between mental illness and autism spectrum disorder, as questions about the gunman's medical history drew attention. Although connections between the conditions were generally dismissed as media coverage proceeded, with distinctions being made by medical professionals and others, a scientific research study into whether a relationship exists is apparently set to get underway in Connecticut. Writing in the Autumn 2012 edition of Rounds, the quarterly magazine of Hartford Hospital, Michal Assaf, M.D., director of the Autism and Functional Mapping Laboratory at the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center at the Institute of Living, says that “traditionally considered separate diagnoses, both schizophrenia and an autism spectrum disorder involve core social and communication deficits. Not much is known, however, about exactly how each neurodevelopmental disorder disrupts the brain or how much they may overlap.”
“Schizophrenia and ASD are thought of as separate entities based on clinical symptoms, age of onset and the course of the illness,” says Dr. Assaf, who also is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Yale University School of Medicine. “Recent evidence suggests a potential overlap.”
“Looking beyond clinical symptoms to the biological and genetic basis of these apparently different illnesses may someday lead to new treatments,” Assaf suggested in the article published prior to the Newtown killings.
She recently received a $2.9 million research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to study social cognition and brain function in schizophrenia and ASD. The study will directly compare a matched group of schizophrenia and ASD patients using a battery of social assessment tools and several neuro-imaging tasks that assess different aspects of social cognition.
Noting the commonly recognized distinctions, Dr. Assaf said that “Schizophrenia is a psychotic illness that typically appears in early adulthood. In contrast, children with ASD show core deficits in social and communication skills – typically without psychotic symptoms – before age three.”
The Institute of Living has been seeking individuals to participate in the research study. The Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center at the Institute of Living, part of Hartford Healthcare, was founded in 2001. The mission of the Center is to be at the forefront of research in psychiatric and psychological disorders, in particular schizophrenia.