Monday, September 03, 2007

ODD? Conduct disorder? Antisocial disorder? Not always a disadvantage

Craig Venter is a famously difficult man. Vain. Egocentric. Argumentative. Difficult to work with. Compelled to defy convention.

He's also fabulously rich and a certified historic figure. He has recently sequenced his own genome and published the results. They are of interest to parents of difficult children ...

J. Craig Venter - In the Genome Race, the Sequel Is Personal - New York Times

...Dr. Venter reports that he has variants that increase his risk of alcoholism, coronary artery disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, antisocial behavior and conduct disorder...

... Next month, Dr. Venter will publish an autobiography, “A Life Decoded.” The book describes the twists and turns that led him down the unlikely path into scientific research. “Rebellious and disobedient,” as he describes himself, he dedicated his teenage years to the pursuit of young women and the California surf, to the detriment of his academic career.

He was drafted at the time of the Vietnam war and enlisted in the Navy. Because of a high I.Q. score, he was given a choice of any Navy career, from nuclear engineering to electronics. He chose the hospital corps school, because it was the only course that did not require any further enlistment. Only too late did he discover the reason. Corpsmen in Vietnam did not usually survive long enough to re-enlist — the half-life of medics in the field was six weeks, he writes.

Learning how to manipulate the Navy bureaucracy, he got himself assigned to the Navy hospital in Da Nang, where chances of survival were better. But the work was harrowing. He witnessed several hundred soldiers die on his operating table, mostly when he was massaging their heart or trying to breathe life into them.

“I learned more than any 20-year-old should ever have to about triage, about sorting those you can salvage from those you cannot do anything for except ease their pain as they died,” Dr. Venter writes in the autobiography.

He escaped from Vietnam with his life and an interest in medical research. With his lack of academic skills, this was a hard field for him to break into, but by 1975 he had a Ph.D. By the late 1980s, he was starting to make his mark as one of the few scientists who could get useful results out of the first DNA sequencing machines that were then becoming available.

He was the first to sequence the genome of a bacterium, Hemophilus influenzae, even though his grant application was turned down by the National Institutes of Health on the advice of experts who said his method would not work. With the human genome, an even greater prize, the pace of competition was intense, especially when his approach turned out to be more efficient than the one his rivals had chosen.

In the book, Dr. Venter says that detractors badmouthed his work, pressured other scientists not to cooperate with him and tried strenuously to block publication of his report, of which they had earlier maneuvered to be made co-authors.

“Like most human endeavors, science is driven in no small part by envy,” he writes.

Dr. Venter has never fully lost his youthful disrespect for authority and establishments. His investment in himself — choosing his own genome to sequence, naming his laboratory the J. Craig Venter Institute — may come across as vainglorious, but it can also be seen as a signal of survival, defying the establishments he believes have sought to crush him. However nettlesome he may seem to some of his colleagues, he has the charm and the personal skills to have recruited many highly able researchers to his teams.

Another reason for his success has been his skill at raising private finances to achieve research goals after being denied support from the National Institutes of Health. That a scientist of his ability has been forced to work outside the N.I.H.’s peer-review system puts peer review in a strange light. If his diploid human genome should become a standard, the success is one that he will have earned by perseverance and defiance of long odds.
My last post was about an astronaut with asperger's syndrome. Now I'm writing about an extremely "successful" man who, but for his IQ, would perhaps have been diagnosed with ADHD/ODD as a child.

One of the more interesting results of understanding the genes for behavior will be changing how we perceive cognitive and behavioral traits. Sometimes a bit of ODD can have advantages (an IQ of 150 probably helps though).

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