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Mind

Scientific Databases - or Filters?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticDecember 7, 2011 7:11 PM

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A new online database called AutismKB offers a quick way to find the evidence linking genes to autism.

You can read up on it in a paper describing the project.

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You can browse by chromosome or gene name, it includes data on all kinds of genetic variants from SNPs to CNVs and it gives each variant a score according to the strength of the evidence. I haven't had a chance to really tell how useful these scores are, but there's an option to create your own score based on how much weight you give different kinds of evidence. The dataset is huge although it doesn't seem to have been updated for a few months.

Overall, it's a new tool and there's sure to be bugs to iron out, but it seems like it could be very useful. I do worry though that this kind of database encourages misleading ways of thinking about autism genetics.

There are numerous genetic variants which have been strongly linked to autism, although none of them account for more a small proportion of cases because these variants are rare. But many (most, actually, is my impression) of them have also been observed in people with other symptoms ranging from ADHD to epilepsy to schizophrenia.

So searching a database of "autism genes" could encourage you to think that these were only autism genes, which is far from true. Genetics, it is becoming increasingly clear, doesn't respect our current concepts of psychiatric illness or our academic specialities. There are few (if any) parts of the genome that can be neatly fenced off and declared exclusive to ADHD experts, schizophrenia researchers or whatever.

But disease-specific databases encourage the illusion that they do exist. It's the same old problem of the filter bubble which many people have warned about in the context of general purpose search engines. Scientists have filter bubbles too.

This is not of course a criticism of AutismKB in particular - the same goes for any similar "disease-gene" database. And to be fair AutismKB does provide links to a schizophrenia database, and a couple of others but you have to dig quite deep to get there. The "main page" of results for any given variant is pure autism.

That's the whole problem with filter bubbles - they make it too easy to hear what you want to hear, compared to getting a new perspective, so you don't even think to look outside the filter.

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Xu LM, Li JR, Huang Y, Zhao M, Tang X, and Wei L (2011). AutismKB: an evidence-based knowledgebase of autism genetics. Nucleic acids research PMID: 22139918

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