Who and What Drives Autism Research?
In the USA the National Institute of Mental Health has just launched a major new research programme into autism. It comes in three parts.
Suffer the little children?
One study will define differences—both biological and behavioral—in autistic children with diverse developmental histories. Increasingly, scientists are considering the likelihood of “autisms,” that is, multiple disorders that comprise autism. These studies seek to better define the subtypes within autism. Children with regressive autism appear to develop normal language and social skills but then lose these with the onset of autism before age 3. Non-regressive autism, the more common form of the disorder, begins early in life, possibly before birth, with evidence of subtle deficits throughout development. Children with these two forms of autism will be compared with those who have other developmental disorders, including various forms of developmental delay, as well as children with typical development. In addition, researchers will study a subset of the children in this study to investigate environmental factors that may trigger symptoms of autism.
This all seems very reasonable until you go to the detailed protocol description.
Depending on each child’s study group and age, participants may undergo the following tests and procedures:
- Medical and developmental history, physical examination, psychological, cognitive and medical tests to assess symptoms of autism or other developmental disorders, photographs of the child’s face, collection of hair, urine and baby teeth samples. If available, hair samples from the baby’s first haircut and from the biological mother’s hair are also collected.
- Overnight electroencephalogram (EEG; for children autism developmental delays and Rett Syndrome): A special cap with electrodes is placed on the child’s head to measure brain waves (brain electrical activity) while the child sleeps in the hospital overnight. Healthy volunteers do not undergo this procedure.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan: The child stays in the scanner, lying still for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Since it may be difficult for the child to lie still, the test may be scheduled for a time when the child is likely to be sleepy, or the child may be sedated.
- Lumbar puncture (for some children in the autism, developmental delay and Rett Syndrome groups). This test may be done under sedation.
The only baby hair study that I am aware of purports to demonstrate that autistic children have an impaired ability to secrete mercury. As science goes it is complete junk. But that does not deter those who believe that most if not all cases of autism are actually a novel form of mercury poisoning. They sieze on the study to explain how the microscopic amounts of mercury once found in childhood vaccines containing the preservative thimerosal were able to accumulate in the brains of these children and cause their autistic behaviours. According to them if you remove the mercury via chelation you will “recover” the child from autism.
Lumbar punctures have been used by researchers looking for measles virus in the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) of autistic children in order to prove that MMR causes autism. But as Mike Fitzpatrick points out in his book, “MMR and Autism. What parents need to know,” when lawyers acting for MMR litigants in the UK tried to have lumbar punctures carried out in the hope of finding measles virus in the CSF of the litigants’ children clinicians in the UK refused on ethical grounds. Invasive and potentially dangerous procedures should only be pursued for the benefit of the child. So they flew the children to Detroit where ethical standards are apparently lower than in the UK. Subjecting children to these procedures for research purposes is bad enough. But doing it in order to find evidence for a discredited theory is child abuse.
Because whichever country you go to you will find that public health officials are united in their opposition to the idea that mercury based preservatives or vaccines themselves are in any way responsible for autism. This is not because the entire world is in thrall to big pharma. It is because researchers have looked for a connection between autism and vaccines and have found none. The burden of proof lies with the proponents of the vaccine damage hypothesis. But until they come up with a much stronger case there is no excuse for using invasive procedures on children that have no clinical justification.
Still looking for the autism pill
It may be that I am wrong and NIMH are not looking for measles in children’s CSF. They might be looking for cytokines instead. There has long been a suspicion that regressive autism could be connected to an excessive immune response, indicated by elevated levels of cytokines, that cause inflammation in the brain. This connects with the second element of the research programme.
In another study, NIMH researchers will examine the use of the antibiotic minocycline to measure its usefulness in treating regressive autism. Past research suggests that autism may be linked with changes in the immune response that cause inflammation in the brain. Minocycline has known anti-inflammatory effects and has been shown to be helpful in other brain disorders such as Huntington’s disease.
“Past research” presumably includes the 2004 study from John Hopkins University. and the more recent study from the University of Cincinnati. Regarding the John Hopkins study the BBC carried this report.
Researcher Dr Carlos Pardo-Villamizar said: “These findings reinforce the theory that immune activation in the brain is involved in autism, although it is not yet clear whether it is destructive or beneficial, or both, to the developing brain.”
Similarly, samples of cerebrospinal fluid obtained from six children with autism were also found to contain elevated levels of cytokines.
The researchers say it might eventually be possible to develop a diagnostic test for autism based on looking for signs of inflammation – and that treating this inflammation might reduce the symptoms of autism.
However, Dr Andrew Zimmerman, a paediatric neurologist at the Kennedy-Krieger Institute in Baltimore who also worked on the study, said it was possible that inflammation was produced as a result of the brain trying to combat some other process damaging to brain cells.
So we know that the inflammation occurs in some autistic children. We do not know what causes the inflammation. We do not know if it is harmful or not. It may even be beneficial. But the folks at NIMH are going to treat it anyway to see what happens.
A report in last month’s New Scientist also suggests that inflammation may interfere with normal brain development in autistic children. But it ends with this warning from Matthew Belmonte, senior research associate at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
“Until we know exactly what it is that causes the abnormal development of grey matter we cannot develop drug treatments.”
The final study is even more alarming. NIMH is proposing to chelate autistic children to see if it works!
NIMH will conduct a controlled study to test the efficacy and safety of chelation for children with autism spectrum disorders. However, the chelation also can remove essential mineral nutrients, such as calcium, iron, and zinc.
“Because chelation therapy is not specific for mercury alone, it is important to conduct a systematic, controlled trial to determine whether or not chelation therapy is beneficial or potentially harmful to children with autism,” says Susan Swedo, M.D., who leads the branch on pediatric behavioral research in the NIMH Division of Intramural Research Programs, where the autism studies are being conducted.
Are NIMH studying autistic children or experimenting on them? I have written to the NIMH press office as follows.
Dear Karin Lee
I am writing in relation to the following item from your recent press release.
“The third study seeks to address the widespread but unproven theory that autism may be treated successfully by chelation therapy, which seeks to remove heavy metals from the blood. Chelation is more commonly used to treat lead toxicity, but currently, many families seek the treatment to try to remove mercury and other metals from their autistic children’s blood. This practice is based on the belief that many cases of autism were caused by exposure to thimerosol, a mercury-based preservative previously used in childhood vaccines.”
I have a number of questions.
- Can you point me to any published research that demonstrates that autistic children do have elevated levels of heavy metals in their blood?
- How do you propose to recruit children to take part in the study?
- Will children who have already undergone chelation be eligible to take part in the study?
- Will you be testing children following an existing treatment protocol, e.g. one authorized by DAN! or will you be administering your own?
- How will you control for potential confounds from other biomedical interventions that are often carried on in parallel by parents who support chelation?
I do hope you can help me with these questions and thank you for your time and cooperation in this matter.
I will keep people informed of their response.