Autism On The Rise

Virginia Hughes explores why autism studies have exploded in the 21st century. Considering that many more males than females are diagnosed with the disorder, she explores how gender factors into funding:

In 2009, the National Institutes of Health spent $196 million on autism, compared with $186 million on Parkinson’s disease and $22 million on Down syndrome. In her new paper, [science historian Sarah] Richardson takes a close look at hundreds of grant applications and published studies related to autism and sex differences. Many grant applications cite autism’s rising prevalence as prime motivation. But they also frequently site the sex bias and [psychologist Simon] Baron-Cohen’s theory [that autism’s “primary characteristics are just an exaggeration of typical differences between men and women, and that they’re caused by excessive exposure to male sex hormones in the womb”].

Richardson describes grant proposals investigating autism’s sex bias through the lens of genetics, epigenetics, gene-hormone interactions, brain anatomy, chemical exposures, rat brain cells, and even the nervous system of worms.

She also found 442 studies related to autism and sex differences that have been published since 1980. Of these, 86 percent came out after 2001, and 10 percent were authored by Baron-Cohen. The rest came from laboratories in a variety of fields, including endocrinology, genetics, brain imaging, and molecular biology. Since 2001, animal research on this topic has exploded.

This is all evidence, Richardson says, that autism has become a “biomedical platform” for scientists of all stripes who are looking for funding, particularly in this era of shrinking science budgets. “We show how, over time, researchers have begun to link their very basic research — even if it’s on nematodes — to frame it as a contribution to autism,” she says. “In the funding and publication structure, there’s been a real shift toward opportunistically using extreme-male-brain-type theories to gain research funding.”

Previous Dish on autism here, here, here, and here.