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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Experts discuss causes of Autism

Published: November 13, 2009
Section: News

A panel of experts on autism spectrum disorders discussed the possible causes of autism in a medical discussion that was held in conjunction with Autism Awareness Week on Monday.

The panel consisted of Dr. Martha Herbert, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Elizabeth Sajdel-Sulkowska, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Director of the Center for Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation at Harvard Medical School and Mark Blaxill, Vice President of Safe Minds, a non-profit organization targeting mercury-induced disorders.

All members of the panel refuted the currently accepted belief that autism is genetic, and blamed it instead on chemicals in food and vaccines.

“The genes that we have identified contribute to only a small amount of [cases of autism],” Herbert said.

Autism has become 12 times more common in the past 20 years. The panelists acknowledged that part of this increase has been linked to changes in diagnostic practice. Herbert maintained, however, that more than half of the increase could not be linked to such changes.

Herbert presented research that indicated that autism could be linked to environmental factors within the placenta. Herbert explained that the concordance of autism in identical twins is 60 percent, which she attributed to the sharing of a placenta—and the possible sharing of a contaminated environment.

She then discussed a study done on newborn cord blood which found 287 unnatural chemicals present, with 208 of them linked to birth defects. Over 200 of them had been banned years before, yet they still appeared in the blood.

“We’re looking at a situation that’s far broader than autism and far broader than the human species,” Herbert said, adding, “our feeling of security… is a little bit unjustified.”

Herbert also suggested that there might be a link between autism and neuro-inflammation, which counters long-held notions about the disorder.

“We used to think that the brain was normal [in children with autism]—that it was just wired differently,” she said. “What I’m advocating for is a different model of autism than what we have.”

Sajdel-Sulkowska also presented research on the connection between autism and environment. She addressed the possible role of mercury, among other chemicals, in autism. Pregnant women are now cautioned against consuming too much fish because it contains mercury. Vaccines also contain mercury, with some pannelists arguing that vaccinations are behind many incidences of autism.

Dr. Pascual-Leone discussed the role of neuroplasticity—the changing of neurons and their networks through new experiences—in relation to autism.

“Plasticity is nature’s invention to overcome the limitations of the genome,” he said.

Blaxill, a parent of an autistic child, challenged what he called the “prevailing narrative”—the belief that autism is caused by a gene and that there is “absolutely no connection between mercury and vaccines and autism,” Blaxill said. “Everything about that narrative is wrong—every inch of it,” he said, noting that it had been advocated by a profit-motivated medical industry. “This notion of a genetic explanation is a lie.”

Blaxill described genetic studies on autism as “one array of confusing information” involving genes that have been present in only 10-15% of autism cases. In his view, the current belief that autism is a heritable trait is false, and that research should expand beyond simple genetics.

He also pointed to the possible connection between vaccines and autism.

“I can tell you as a parent that there are hundreds of thousands of cases of children regressing after vaccines,” he said.

He admitted that the evidence for a connection between vaccines and autism is “mixed and complex.”

Blaxill also pointed to the “dramatic expansion in childhood immunization” as the culprit of the increasing rate of autism, pointing out that “something like 30 different immunizations are administered to infants.”

“The debate is not about vaccines. I’m not anti-vaccine,” he said. “I do want other parents to be concerned. It’s about health. It’s about safe products.”

Blaxill has called for studies to be done on differences between vaccinated and unvaccinated children, but he expressed doubt about the prospects of it, condemning the medical industry as “an orthodoxy… almost a religion” that has decided to “pit science against crazy, irrational parents.”

“[Unlike the prevailing narrative], the new narrative is simple,” Blaxill said. “Autism is new.”