What is the True Cause of Autism?

AutismDetermining the true cause of autism is a complicated endeavor. A lot of people blame vaccines, food additives, and the like while others dispute this and may attribute it to genes or brain abnormalities, sometimes lacking further explanation. Part of the problem with these debates is the circular nature as people conclude that autism is caused by vaccines and others argue that it is not. Few people would probably disagree that the rates of autism and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have drastically risen (though this is affected somewhat by diagnostic advances), opponents of the vaccination explanation often fail to suggest what else is responsible for this increase. This is a gap that needs to be closed.

What about those most affected by the disorder, how many parents of these children believe that vaccines contribute? How many believe it is genetic or attributable to other factors without any contribution from vaccines? Aside from the commonly asserted influences, what do they otherwise believe to be responsible for the rising rate of ASD?

Many people are adamant that vaccines are not a factor, especially after Dr Wakefield was stripped of his medical license, but he still has followers and some professionals in the medical community that give credit to a few of his assertions. Both a pediatric gastroenterologist at Harvard Medical School and a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California are highly interested in the role gastrointestinal illness can play in autism. Even if Dr. Wakefield is completely incorrect about any relation between autism and MMR the vaccine, it seems that he has made an important observation that has launched further research into the potential causes of autism.

Before any focused research begins an observation is usually made of a correlation, positive or negative, between two factors. There has to be an impetus. Never mind that the first idea might not be correct, the motivation to solve the mystery is arguably the most important step. From here the debate can cease and people can collectively search for more concrete evidence and an altogether new viewpoint.

It is important to remember that correlation and causation are two drastically different things. This fundamental confusion can lead to an erroneous belief surrounding vaccines. An example of confusion between correlation and causation is the finding that children are more likely to have food sensitivities if their mother was on antibiotics during pregnancy.  Does that mean taking antibiotics during pregnancy causes food allergies/sensitivities? No, but it can make a significant contribution to them. A food allergy can also develop spontaneously, or due to another cause not yet understood.

Here is another more related example, since boys are more likely to be colorblind, does being male cause colorblindness? No. It has to do with the redundancy of the x chromosome and that colorblindness is a recessive trait. Similarly, boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with ASD.  It is feasible that the genetic link found in autism is also a recessive trait that is carried on the x chromosome. This means that if a girl is going to develop ASD due to genes alone she must get it from her mother and father. If she only gets one copy than she will carry it and has a 50% chance of giving it to her son. However, the problem is not that simple, as multiple genes have been shown to be involved in ASD.

The genes linked to autism could be undergoing independent mutations or might be altered by exposure to certain environmental elements. If genes were not clearly understood prior to any specific observation of dysfunction, such as ASD, then once the genes are understood it might be concluded that they caused the dysfunction. However, this is not necessarily accurate. The genes exist, environmental factors were present that may have altered the genes and it may have only been investigated after it became observable at the genetic level. Where did it begin, with the chicken or the egg?

The identification of genes linked to autism leaves room for discussion on the origin of this genetic link. It remains unclear whether the genes involved are of a natural variation or have undergone a mutation caused by a bacterium or virus. The latter seems a more plausible explanation for the drastic rise in rates of ASD which could theoretically explain a positive correlation that has been found between antibiotic use and autism.

The use of antibiotics influences intestinal flora and could be part of a cascade of events leading to or at least contributing to autism or some of its symptoms. Dr. Wakefield is even given credit from some of the research community on the importance of gut health on autism. Large numbers of parents have reported a reduction in autistic symptoms when their child’s diet and intestinal health was addressed

Regardless of where professionals stand on this debate there needs to be a more open-minded approach to solving this mystery. It is about the children. Even though they are unique and sometimes very gifted, it is unlikely that any parent, given the choice, would want this for their child. A scientific and medical focus needs to be on the kids and digging more and more to determine the true cause. While there appears to be a genetic link, that in and of itself is not a sufficient explanation. So what is?

For each person opposing the belief that autism is caused by GMOs, food additives, medications, vaccines, or any other environmental element researchers should say more than, “No it’s not.” Rather than simply refuting any perceived connection, it is crucial to provide another idea and contribute research that is aimed at a solution rather than a debate.  Let that side maintain that autism is caused by vaccines while independent research continues in an effort to find an alternative explanation.

The cause of ASD needs to be understood. The dramatic rise in the number of children diagnosed with ASD needs to be resolved. It is not appropriate for anyone to be blindly asserting opinions and anecdotal evidence. The idea that vaccines contribute should not be accepted based on popularity, but rather on knowledge and understanding.

The fear surrounding vaccines may create a barrier to unbiased research. Vaccines have saved millions of lives and also prevented many lifelong disabilities. They are not a breakthrough that should be casually dismissed nor should it be dismissed that something so profoundly beneficial also has drawbacks. Over the course of history a large shift in understanding is the standard not the exception. Let the research continue in order to identify what the true cause of autism is.

People should have a healthy skepticism about the medical and pharmaceutical industries. At one point in time Thalidomide was believed to be safe, smoking cigarettes was as well. It is now accepted as fact that both should be avoided because of the damage they can inflict.

There is no dispute over whether or not mercury is a neurotoxin and that it can have a disastrous effect on brain development. A court qualified expert on vaccine induced disease, Dr Carley says that “Mercury is 1000 times more toxic than lead and is second only to uranium as the most toxic metal.” While mercury is present in multiple forms and comes from a vast number of sources it does not mean that autism or another pervasive developmental disorder cannot be exacerbated by the mercury in vaccines. The mercury emissions from massive coal burning operations in China can also contribute as this is now affecting the United States. This goes further to suggest what an enormously complicated issue autism is.

Mercury has no beneficial effect on the human body. Accordingly, warnings are issued regularly about what type and amount of fish is safe for women and children to eat. Fish can be contaminated with other substances, but these warnings are mainly focused on mercury contamination. If eating a fish containing mercury is damaging despite being in the digestive tract for a limited period of time it stands to reason that mercury injected directly into peripheral tissues would have some effect as well. The forms typically introduced into the digestive tract are different than that contained in vaccines, but still there is absolutely nothing positive that comes from any form of mercury put into the human body. There are safer alternatives available and they should be used.

Mercury in vaccines comes in the form of ethylmercury otherwise known as thimerosol. The CDC states that “Studies comparing ethylmercury and methylmercury suggest that they are processed differently in the human body.” Ethylmercury in some vaccines was being phased out starting in 2001. The CDC claims that if it could cause autism the rates of autism would be going down rather than increasing, but this might be a premature conclusion. If Thimerosol is somehow altering genes it could take decades for any decrease to be observed. It is even possible that any change in genes is irreversible and will be passed down through generations.

The CDC remains unclear as their statement is that research “suggests” that ethylmercury is much safer. However, they are removing it from vaccines, which suggests an acknowledgement that it is still unsafe. They admit that while there are flu vaccines that do not contain ethylmercury “the total amount of flu vaccine without thimerosal as a preservative at times has been limited, but availability will increase as vaccine manufacturing capabilities are expanded.”

It is concerning that pregnant women are being pushed to get the flu vaccine, the majority of which still contain mercury. Furthermore mercury has been shown to become concentrated in the umbilical cord causing an even more dangerous level of mercury. The National Resource Defense Council now considers 3.4 micrograms of mercury per liter of blood to be unsafe; the prior level was defined as 5.8 micrograms per liter. So the level that is considered dangerous is almost half of what was previously defined. While the CDC claims that mercury has been removed from “childhood vaccines” it is clear that other vaccines containing mercury are still introduced into the infant.

Each dose of the flu vaccine contains 25 micrograms of mercury, over five times what is considered safe. This affects the mother and the fetus and in just one single dose. This is more mercury than is safe for any person weighing less than 550 pounds. What about a fetus that is just developing? This discussion does not even factor in the aluminum, another neurotoxin or formaldehyde which both of which are still present in vaccines.

Just as mercury can damage the brain and possibly contribute to ASD, a deficiency of omega-3s has been linked to ASD, and brain abnormalities seen in other diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. A recent study published by the EPA found that the amount of mercury in the blood of pregnant women has decreased by 65% but that the amount of fish they consume has remained almost the same. However, the study did not specify if the fish being consumed are types containing high levels of omega-3s. The warnings are encouraging better choices among women who want to protect their unborn babies. Hopefully, women are not avoiding fish containing high levels of omega-3s. Given their importance in healthy brain development the use of a properly purified supplement becomes crucial.

The development of ASD may be completely unrelated to vaccines. Yet mercury is a poison in the brain and it can be present in everything from lotions to fumes from the burning of coal. Regardless of the cause one problem with understanding ASD is that it begins to exert an influence in a brain that is rapidly developing. With so many changes occurring in early childhood any abnormality can be difficult to track. Children with autism seem to exhibit an overgrowth of synapses in infancy and up to 3 years of age. However, this is not a direct cause. The cortical growth seems to occur at the same rate as in children without ASD but a larger number of synapses may be present prior to birth. It appears to be a dysfunction in synaptic pruning that can cause the elevated environmental sensitivity in children with ASD. In other words brain development relies on the formation of many synapses but also the clearing away of ineffective connections.

The brain in someone with ASD is not failing to send signals but possibly an overabundance of signals or misguided signals. This can be likened to a computer that has a limited capacity to process information, if it is being pushed to process too much information all at once the computer slows and sometimes freezes up completely. Again, even this flawed synaptic function has not been observed in the brains of all children diagnosed with autism.

For a long time there was a known “fact” that the world was flat. That has changed as science, research, and mobility around the globe were able to disprove that belief. Nature versus nurture was a long standing debate in psychology but it is now widely accepted that both are determinants, and even further that nurture can alter what is attributed to nature.  With epigenetics, the nature (genes) and the nurture (environment) actually cause changes in one another. Genes can be altered by the environment in addition to any naturally occurring mutations. This seems like an important avenue for further autism research not just because of the apparent genetic involvement but because of the possibility it holds for treatments. The activity of genes can be changed with scientific advances, making a cure for autism a real possibility.

Affected families may be grasping at straws to determine the cause of this disorder and its increasing occurrence, but so many things have changed in the recent years that it is nearly impossible to isolate one offender. Americans eat more processed food, foods with artificial colors and flavors, even some that are known to be carcinogenic. Somehow these things are still allowed into foods despite common awareness that they are detrimental. Some may be innocuous but nobody seems to know for sure as it is impossible to eliminate all extraneous variables. The ingredients in vaccines are no different. They may be just as damaging, maybe more so, and have no place being injected into infants when other alternatives are available.

The increasing amounts of chemicals encountered in day to day life is staggering, people are living in a chemical cocktail and it is likely that there are multiple contributing factors to the development of ASD, just as there is for cancer, heart disease, obesity and other health problems that have rising rates. Why would autism be any different? Hopefully scientists will soon identify the true root cause of autism.

An Editorial by Lara Stielow

Sources:

National Resource Defense Council

Institute for Responsible Technology

CDC

CDC

Proquest 

National Library of Medicine

Cornell University

National Library of Medicine

Exchange Magazine

Scientific American

South Milwaukee Now

China Dialogue

Liberty Beacon

The Scientist

Popular Science

New York Times

Journal of Medical Microbiology

The Vaccine Book

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