The Male Biological Clock

Aging sperm is linked to children’s developmental and psychiatric conditions
Published on December 3, 2012 by The Contemporary Psychoanalysis Group in Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action

Men, as well as women, are advised to attend to the tick-tock of the biological clock.

New research, reported in the NY Times (August 22, 2012) confirms that as men age, they are more likely to father a child who develops autism and schizophrenia. Although previous studies strongly suggested a link, this new study actually quantifies the effect as it builds each year. The study, published online in Nature (August 22, 2012) by Kari Stefansson and his team at Decode Genetics in Iceland, demonstrated that 97% of the rate of new mutations, accidental changes in DNA that can prevent a gene from functioning properly, can be attributed to the age of the father.

Male sperm-producing cells are constantly dividing and as a result the number of new mutations increases over time. The sperm of a 20 year old man carries about 25 mutations; the number rises at a rate of 2 per year. So the sperm of a 40 year old man may have some 65 new mutations. Since females are born with a lifetime supply of eggs already in their ovaries, the number of new mutations a mother passes along is about 15, regardless of her age.

The implications of this research are dramatic. Seth Mnookin (Gene Blues: The Danger to our Gene Pool as Fathers Become Older and Older, New Yorker, August 27th) observed that, “The genetic health of the species is now facing a serious threat” and “ new mutations cause by old sperm raised the specter of an inevitable decline in the mean fitness of the population.”

Judith Shulevitz (New York Times, September 8, 2012) notes, “Unborn children can be affected by what and how much the father eats, the toxins he absorbs and that, even more astonishingly, those children may pass those traces along to their children”.

Women have always had to contend with the “biological clock” when balancing desires for career and family. Common knowledge dictated that men could delay fatherhood with no ill effects. Or they could start a new family with a young “trophy wife”. In the classic film, How to Marry a Millionaire, a very young Lauren Bacall pursues the distinguished William Powell who is old enough to be her father. He’s a great catch! This new research would give Bacall pause. Is it more likely that their union would produce an autistic or schizophrenic child, or a child with a lower IQ?

Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s I vividly recall the terms, “refrigerator mother” and “schizophrenigenic mother” applied to beleaguered women trying to understand and cope with strange, unresponsive or explosive children. When they sought help from the medical establishment, doctors told them it was their fault; that a child flapping his arms repeatedly like a bird or refusing to make eye contact became this way because his mother could not show him adequate love. These women were often advised not to have more children.

Noted psychologists Bruno Bettelheim and Frieda Fromm-Reichmann insisted it was maternal failings that caused schizophrenia and autism. A documentary entitled, Refrigerator Mother (2003) features Bruno Bettelheim on the Dick Cavett show in the late 1960’s stating emphatically that children become autistic because the child believes the mother wishes them dead, just as the Nazis wished the Jews dead. Bettelheim illustrated his thesis with films of strange, asocial children with vacant stares, comparing their facial expressions with those of concentration camp victims. The effect of this comparison was compelling and convincing.

The theory of the “schizophrenigenic mother” was profoundly unhelpful to the mothers of autistic and schizophrenic children. And it was abandoned as more research revealed the biological roots of these disorders.

What is true: when a child comes into the world with severe problems in attachment, it is imperative that parents learn how to cope with the feelings aroused by children who scream uncontrollably when their daily routine is changed or shrink from all physical contact. Feelings of hate towards both the child and the self are common. The parents may even wish the child dead, which is a reaction to the illness, not the cause of the illness. How a parent copes with such intense—and expectable—negative feeling will have a significant impact on the child.

The psychological burden of raising an autistic child, however, still mostly falls on the mother, according to Susan Rose, Ph.D., Director of the Child and Family Center at the William Alanson White Institute and expert on the treatment on Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Dr. Rose has observed that Autistic Spectrum Disorder has a strong genetic component and is mostly passed along from fathers to sons. Fathers with ASD are particularly challenged by the emotional burden of coping with an autistic child. The work of researcher Simon Baron-Cohen (Borat/Alie G/Bruno’s cousin) sited in an October 28, 2012 cover story in New York Magazine on Asperger’s Syndrome, supports Rose’s observations that autism can be passed along from fathers to sons.

As it becomes clearer that the origins of autism and schizophrenia are linked more closely to the father, this will hopefully encourage fathers to assume a more important role in raising difficult and troubled children. And this requires learning how to cope with the feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness and hate evoked in a parent by the autistic child.

It turns out that BOTH men and women are best suited, biologically speaking, to reproduce in their 20’s and early 30’s. After 35, both men and women are more likely to produce children with various kinds of developmental difficulties. Men face the same questions as women: can they afford to wait until their careers are settled before starting a family?