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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Mental Health and IQ

Q. I am about to embark on a Ph.D. My research question is not fully refined as yet but I want to investigate whether there is any correlation between mental/emotional illness and high IQ. Are you aware of any studies/research which has been undertaken on this subject? I am aware that there are quite a lot of information on the subject of creativity and mental illness but not on actual high IQ.

A. As I'm sure you know, most severe mental disorders (e.g., major depression, schizophrenia) are associated with cognitive impairments of various types, leading in most cases to deficits on the WAIS (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale) and other measures of IQ. [For a thorough discussion of these issues, I recommend Avraham Calev's book, Assessment of Neuropsychological Functions in Psychiatric Disorders, 1999]. The only cases of mental disorder I know of in which IQ might be elevated involve some patients with eating disorders and some so-called idiot savant patients with autism.

Regarding the first group, Walitza et al [Z Kinder Jugendpsychiatr Psychother 2001 29:117-25] examined 110 patients with anorexia nervosa (AN) and 30 with bulimia nervosa (BN), and found that anorectic patients had higher than average IQs. However, some of the data reviewed by Calev suggest that various subsets of the WAIS may show deficits in patients with AN, while other subsets demonstrate above-average performance; e.g., superior verbal skills but impaired spatial skills.

On the other hand, some idiot savant artists seem to show superior image memory compared to controls, even when matched for overall IQ [see O'Connor & Hermelin, Psychol Med 1987; 17:79-90). These authors concluded that the idiot savants showed "the presence of an IQ-independent talent". Of course, there are many different conceptions of intelligence, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between creativity and a unique type of intelligence that may not be measured on standard tests.

Good luck with your thesis!

October 2001

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