Dr. Christopher Badcock explains key epigenetic concepts of the Imprinted Brain theory and how it might change the way we think about mental disorders. This short take was shot during a break at Keystone Symposia’s meeting on Environmental Epigenomics and Disease Susceptibility held in March 2011 in Asheville, North Carolina.
Imprinted Brain Theory
Well, the imprinted brain theory, which I developed with my colleague, Bernard Crespi, who’s a geneticist in Canada, is really an attempt to try and explain mental illness. We’ve known for a long time that mental illnesses like schizophrenia and autism run in families, but they don’t obey the rules of Mendelian inheritance. So they’re not classical genetic illnesses. Our theory says that’s because it’s not just a question of the inheritance of genes, but of their expression.
So we believe that epigenetic expression is the critical factor. Furthermore, we think we know what the particular pattern of expression is that produces these disorders. Basically our theory claims that if a gene expression is unbalanced towards increased expression of the father’s genes, then there’s a greater risk of an autism spectrum disorder. Or, if the opposite happens, and early in development there’s an increased expression of the mother’s genes, including those on the x-chromosome, there’s a greater danger of what we would call “a psychotic spectrum disorder,” like schizophrenia.
If, as it normally happens, thank God, both parents’ genes are expressed in balance, you’re normal. So it’s a question, really, of epigenetic perturbations affecting early brain development, which then push a person’s cognitive configuration one way or the other, potentially with pathological results if it’s an extreme disturbance.
“Our theory says that’s because it’s not just a question of the inheritance of genes, but of their expression. So we believe that epigenetic expression is the critical factor.”
If the imprinted brain theory is true, it will mark an absolute revolution in our thinking about the mind and mental illness. It will be the end of the Middle Ages in psychiatry in the sense that you’ll be able to diagnose people on the basis of genetic and epigenetic testing, rather than ticking boxes as psychiatrists do at present, with all the problems that that involves.
It will lead to a new model of mental illness in which, you know, mentally ill people won’t be seen as kind of alien species different from the rest of us, they’ll be seen as people who deviate from the norm, and as a result there will be new insights into treatment.
Because if you think about it, what our model suggests is the way to treat a psychotic spectrum disorder is to make psychotic people more autistic, because that will push them back towards the middle, as it were, and we already know that social skills training can be very helpful for people who are autistic. That’s what we would call “a mentalistic skill,” so that would push them back, as it were, towards the center.
So it has all kinds of counterintuitive and very revolutionary and surprising insights into diagnosis, into psychiatric nosology that would lead to a completely knew DSM, for example. It would have to be completely re-written on this basis. New therapy, new attitude to psychotherapy, and a possibility of new drug therapies as well.