Why scientists think Neanderthals might've been immune to autism, schizophrenia

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Apr 17, 2014, 5:01 PM EDT

Scientists in Israel have reached a breakthrough in their study of early human genomes, and they might’ve stumbled upon some startling neurological findings.

Liran Carmel’s team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel has mapped the gene activity in our extinct ancestors the Neanderthals and Denisovans, and compared the results to modern humans. According to New Scientist, the study showed the different ways genes have evolved and the way those differences affect our minds and those of our ancestors.

Basically, the study looked at the way different genes acted after being tagged with a chemical containing a methyl group, which decreases the activity of those genes. Using existing research that shows how DNA bases decay, the team was able to identify 2,000 genes that developed in different ways across the three different lineages.

One of the biggest discoveries from the study was that methylation in humans has a major effect on genes with associations to both overall health and neurological disorders such as schizophrenia, autism and Alzheimer’s disease. But those genes developed differently in Neanderthals and Denisovans, meaning they likely didn’t face the same issues.

As Carmel puts it, those findings raise an interesting question: “Could it be that recent changes in the activity of genes in our brain also led to psychiatric disorders?” He doesn’t know for sure, but it’s at least a new way of looking at an issue that affects so many people on the planet.

Chris Stringer, with the Natural History Museum in London, said he believes Carmel’s research is “pioneering work” that could bring about further breakthroughs in understanding the biology of premodern humans. This study marks a fascinating look into how the human genome evolved — and how different things could’ve been.

(Via New Scientist)