Autism Research Update

Viva Magazine:  Holiday 2009 issue

Autism Spectrum Disorder:  Uncovering new research

Written by:  Dr. Sonya Doherty, N.D., Defeat Autism Now! practitioner

This year, 1 in every 150 children will receive the devastating diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  The language, social and cognitive skills that so many parents take for granted in their typically developing children, will be impaired for these children on the autism spectrum.

ASD is one of the most common developmental disorders affecting children today. The amount of children diagnosed with ASD 10 years ago was four in 10,000. Now, a child is diagnosed with autism every 20 minutes. This is a health crisis that extends far beyond the children and families dealing with ASD.

A child receives a diagnosis of autism when they show impairments with language and social and cognitive development. These children often cannot make eye contact or show affection. Children on the autism spectrum can become obsessed with different objects and spin or flap their arms. The ability to process information in their brains is impaired.  It would be like trying to listen to a single person when dozens are speaking to you at once. They are overwhelmed with stimuli and don’t have the ability to process information correctly.

Escalating rates have created the need for research.  Mounting evidence is showing that autism is biological in nature, that genetics and environment play a crucial role in the development and severity of autism.  While genetics is an important part of the puzzle, it can only account for 1% of ASD on its own.  A genetic predisposition in addition to environmental triggers is what causes autism in the majority of cases.

That is why researchers are focused on identifying environmental triggers, physiological weaknesses and treatments that have the potential to enhance development.   If autism is biological, treatment has the ability to dramatically improve social, language and cognitive development.  Let’s explore some of the latest information on ASD.

Some of the most interesting research about autism spectrum disorder is focused on a biochemical pathway called methylation.  When a baby is conceived, the very first cells are demethylated.  As the cells, and the baby, grow, they become methylated.  Methylation plays a key role in fuelling the brain and supporting the brain’s ability to detoxify toxic substances.  Toxic substances are removed, in part, by the body’s head honcho detoxifier: glutathione.  Methylation and detoxification through glutathione are essential for healthy development.

Dr. Jill James, a researcher at the University of Arkansas, has discovered three very important factors in the causation of autism in her research.

  • 90% of children on the autism spectrum have impaired methylation
  • Parents of children on the autism spectrum also have methylation defects
  • The enzyme needed to detoxify metals, glutathione, is 80% depleted in children with ASD.

Award winning research, done at the University of Western Ontario, by Dr. Derrick MacFabe is investigating the gut-brain connection in autism.  Dr. MacFabe’s work has been listed as one of the top 50 scientific discoveries in Canada.  His research set out to discover if the bacterial species Clostridia could play a role in triggering autism.  Clostridia has been found in higher numbers in children with ASD and has the opportunity to overgrow in the intestine with frequent use of antibiotics, IV antibiotics during labour or with C-section births that bypass the good bacteria in the vaginal tract.  These bacteria produce a compound called proprionic acid (PA).  When Dr. MacFabe injected PA into rats, they developed autism like symptoms including:

  • Spinning
  • Repetitive behaviours
  • Seizures / convulsions
  • Pushing away
  • Hyperactivity
  • Altered social interaction and impairment in “play” like behavior

Johns Hopkins study found that the brains of children and adults with ASD show signs of inflammation, suggesting that autism is associated with activation of the brain’s immune system.

“These findings reinforce the theory that immune response in the brain is involved in autism, although it is not yet clear whether the inflammation is a consequence of disease or a cause of it, or both,” said Carlos Pardo-Villamizar, M.D., assistant professor of neurology and pathology at Johns Hopkins and senior author of a report on the study published early on-line in the journal Annals of Neurology on Nov. 15.

The digestive tract is the heart of the innate immune system.  The intestines and the immune system both play a key role in regulating inflammation. Studies have shown that 46%-85% of children with ASD have gastrointestinal problems including constipation, diarrhea, cramping and pain.

Much more research is need to put all of the pieces of autism together but this research is already changing the way that autism is viewed by the medical community.  Physicians treating autism, using the biological model of autism are having tremendous success in promoting and enhancing development.  These types of treatments, termed biomedical, mean there is hope for autism!