SFU biologist Bernard Crespi to receive prize for novel theory on mental illness

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      Competition between the parents’ genes could explain why a child may later on suffer from either autism or schizophrenia.

      In broad strokes, this was the novel theory developed eight years ago by Bernard Crespi, an evolutionary biologist at SFU, and Christopher Badcock, a sociologist with the London School of Economics, to explain mental illness.

      “We believe that psychiatric illness may be less to do with the genes a mother and father pass down, and more to do with which genes they program for expression,” the two researchers stated in one of the articles they presented.

      “By our hypothesis, a hidden battle of the sexes — where a mother’s egg and a father’s sperm engage in an evolutionary struggle to turn gene expression up or down — could play a crucial part in determining the balance or imbalance of an offspring’s brain,” they wrote. “If this proves true, it would greatly clarify the diagnosis of mental disorders.”

      Reporting in 2008, the New York Times noted that the “new idea provides psychiatry with perhaps its grandest working theory since Freud, and one that is grounded in work at the forefront of science”.

      Summarizing the idea put forward by Crespi and Badcock, the paper wrote: “A strong bias toward the father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum, toward a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development. A bias toward the mother moves the growing brain along what the researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood, their own and others’. This, according to the theory, increases a child’s risk of developing schizophrenia later on, as well as mood problems like bipolar disorder and depression.”

      For his work, Crespi will receive SFU’s Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy this year.

      The award ceremony takes place at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at SFU’s Vancouver campus on October 17.

      “I think the award recognizes research that’s new, novel, and potentially wrong but potentially revolutionary as well,” Crespi said in a university media release. “That encourages people to take risks, which they might not otherwise do.”

      Established at SFU in 1993, the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy recognizes work that stirs up and helps in providing insights into controversy.