“What is the Cause of Autism? Why did my child develop it?”
These are the most common questions that I am asked by parents, who, like myself, just couldn’t understand what happened and why. Taking care of children on the Spectrum since my own child was diagnosed 17 years ago, I hear a lot of tragic stories, many of which begin something like this:
“My kid was fine, until… [fill in the blank], then we lost him (her). Here are the most common events reported to fill in the blank:
They got sick, or got a vaccine, or got a series of ear infections, or were put on rounds of antibiotics, or developed extreme constipation or diarrhea, or eczema, allergies, or asthma. An example is a patient that I saw yesterday, an 11 year old, one of twins, had an MMR at age 12 months, had a seizure the next day, and then developed Autism. His twin is fine.
Regardless of the environmental event, the results are the same, Autism. So, how does this happen? What explains the epidemic of Autism (one in 60 births), or the epidemic of pediatric neuroimmune disorders in general which includes ADHD, PANS/PANDAS, sensory integration disorders, developmental delays, and others?
“Recent estimates in the United States show that about one in six, or about 15%, of children aged 3 through 17 years have a one or more developmental disabilities.” (From the CDC website).
What about the epidemic of neuroimmune disorders in Adults, with younger and younger patients being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia, MS and other disorders?
One avenue that requires more attention is the role that an infection, a virus, might play in the development of neuroimmune disfunction disorders, including Autism and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Plague by Dr. Mikovits, and Kent Heckenlively, suggests the possibility of a role for a retrovirus in these disorders. I would summarize the theory in this way: A Retrovirus (called XMRV) infects the cells of our immune system, interacts with our DNA whose damaged genes become expressed due to environmental toxins.
The link of XMRV (Xenotropic Murine Retrovirus), to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and possibly to Autism as well, is articulated in this exciting book, summarizing the provocative research of Dr. Mikovits. She is a science and humanitarian heroine, who refused to compromise her ethics or the scientific method while she brought into the spotlight, a retrovirus, the understanding of which can change the lives of millions of people that suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and other neuroimmune diseases such as Autism.
It is hard to contemplate the breath of the effect that Dr. Mikovits’ discovery will have on how we think about the role of the environment on the expression of disease. Her core research, even dares to tread on the hot button vaccine issue. She forces us to ask the hard questions of just how safe are our vaccines, how were they developed? Could a virus have been transmitted from one animal species to another during the early development of vaccines? If so, how could that have impacted one our genome, and what role could that have had in the epidemic of Autism, and the epidemic of autoimmune diseases in general?
Dr. Mikovits asked the question and did the hard science to lend evidence to, at least in some cases, a role for the activation of a retrovirus (XMRV) in the development of these disorders, that is, an environmental event, triggering either the replication of a virus that has invaded the immune system, or triggering the genes that have been altered by the virus. In careful studies, Dr. Mikovits and her colleagues found that about 70% of those with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are positive for the presence of the virus, and 50% or higher of children with ASD have evidence of XMRV; that is astounding. Perhaps more alarming is that about 6% of the population at large, without any known disease, harbors this virus.
These viruses live in the lymphocytes, the B and T cells of the immune system. When you receive a vaccine, (or are exposed to a toxin or get an infection) you heighten B and T cell activity. That is how the immune system is supposed to respond to a vaccine to accomplish antibody production and immunity. However, if there is a passenger virus, a retrovirus, such as XMRV, in those B and T cells, the virus will also be replicated aggressively because the cells they occupy are activated and replicating rapidly.
Retroviruses replicate by incorporating themselves into the genetic code of the cell that they occupy, so when the cell replicates, so does the virus. So you now have a poorly functioning immune system because the virus disrupts normal B and T cell function.
This makes a lot of sense, after all, Autism is an immune dysfunction disorder, that’s what it is, I know it isn’t defined that way, but that is what is happening. Many children on the spectrum display unusual reactions to infections, and severe behavior changes that result from common exposures such as to food additives. They develop food sensitivities, particularly to gluten, dairy and soy. They have neuroinflammatory reactions to infections such as Epstein Barr Virus or Strep (PANDAS/PANS). They are even more susceptible to tick borne illnesses like Lyme Disease. Further evidence that ASD is an immune dysfunction disorder is the fact that autoimmune diseases are more common in families that have autistic children. There are many studies that corroborate that fact, as does my own experience. Other evidence of ASD as an autoimmune disease is the auto-antibodies detected in mothers of ASD children. A large study published in 2013 in Molecular Psychiatry looked at 2,700 mothers with autistic children and found that 10% of them produce anti-brain antibodies that when injected into mice and monkeys, produce autistic characteristics in those animals.
Therefore, there may be several scenarios that lead to the expression of Autism. For example, a fetus incubating in the womb may be exposed to these neuroimmune antibodies from the mother. Or, another scenario is that the fetus may be harboring a retrovirus in the immune cells, poised for a toxic trigger which leads to immune dysfunction and developmental difficulties from birth. The toxins that a fetus and newborn are exposed to, trigger the expression of trouble genes. This is a phenomenon called Epigenetics, i.e., the environment triggering a genetic predisposition. Another path to immune dysfunction is that the child may harbor a remnant or signature of the virus, not the virus itself. That is, the child may have inherited the genetic code that was altered when the virus incorporated itself into the host DNA of their parents or grandparents. This science fiction scenario is called Transgenerational Epigenetics, and it’s a real thing. (Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our Genes, by Richard C. Francis).
In other words, a retrovirus, could have infected the white blood cells of our grandparents which then incorporated itself into their DNA, then got passed on to our parents, then to us and finally to our children. Those hijacked genetic codes, sit there like Pandora ’s Box, waiting for a toxic exposure to release them. The potential triggers that could open the box include chemical exposures, other infections, vaccines, anything that the immune system may take issue with and thereby become activated. By their very nature, by their very design, vaccines stimulate the immune system in order to impart immunity. However, for some children, giving a vaccine could be like nudging the first domino, setting up a cascade of reactions resulting in the immune dysfunction disorder called Autism, or other childhood epidemic neuroimmune disorders such as ADHD, Sensory Integration Disorder, and PANS/PANDAS.
Connecting Past Oversights to Current Epidemics
Here is how we might put the pieces together: Dramatic changes that we made to our environment years ago, perhaps as long ago as the Industrial Revolution (a second ago, when you consider the history of our species), began a cascade of events with the goal of converting natural resources to energy, without an understanding of how toxic byproducts could affect our genes. For heaven’s sake, we didn’t even know what DNA looked like until Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double helix in the 1950’s. In addition to the advances to meet energy demands, we also sought solutions to public health problems, particularly in our growing cities. We experienced epidemics that were frightening, unpredictable and devastating such as Polio, and we dedicated resources and efforts to defeat it, and we did. But, might there have been fallout from this endeavor? We didn’t know at the time that the necessary use of animals such as mice and monkeys, to develop vaccines, inadvertently resulted in viruses jumping species from one to another. Even though the 1930’s was a millisecond ago, we didn’t have a fraction of the microbe sensing technology that we have today. So, here’s the story and I’m sticking with it: the introduction of pollution, toxins, heavy metals and viruses new to our species, created our manmade epidemic of autoimmune diseases from Autism to MS to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
It’s a viable hypothesis, and I didn’t make it up. Thanks to the work of researchers such as Dr. Olmsted, author of The Age of Autism, and Dr. Mikovits, the evidence for this hypothesis is compelling.
Save the Children
How might this theory that implicates toxins, viruses and even vaccines, be useful to help us prevent Autism? What if we could identify which mothers were more likely to give birth to a child with Autism? Which mothers had brain autoantibodies? What if you could tell from a blood test, that there was evidence of the presence of a retrovirus such as XMRV, or evidence of changes in the DNA reflective of a retrovirus, could you intervene to prevent the expression of Autism in the child? Maybe you could. You could provide supplements and a diet that would strengthen their immune system. Maybe you could delay vaccines and spread them out (or forgo them entirely). We could emphasize mitochondrial support and support methylation (detoxification). Can you imagine? Understanding the immunogenic factors (toxins), along with the innate ability of the mother/fetus/child to detoxify naturally, could dramatically decrease the rate of Autism.
There are still so many questions about where this epidemic in neuroimmune disorders is coming from, but thanks to the work and dedication of Dr. Judy Mikovits and other researchers, I feel we are getting closer. As the father of a child on the autism spectrum and another daughter with Multiple Sclerosis, knowing we are closer to an explanation, provides me with hope, hope for them, and hope for my patients with Autism with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, with Lyme Disease and many other immune dysfunction disorders.
Granted, there are many frustrations, mainly that we are not moving fast enough, and that the issues such as the role of the environment, or of vaccines is so polarizing that the passions on both sides become barriers to a healthy discussion. Let’s begin by acknowledging the fact that not all children are going to react the exact same way to an illness, to a toxin, to a vaccine, and that we need to know more about why that is the case. Let’s also acknowledge that neuroimmune diseases are related to each other, are epidemic, are manmade, are preventable and treatable. . It is a daunting task before us, but our children are worth it. We will be at odds with the powerful behemoths of this country such as the food industry, the petrochemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, but we still have to ask the hard questions. We have created these epidemics, just like we have created global warming, just as tragic, just as devastating, just as indolent, and unfortunately, just as politically charged. We need a dramatic shift in thinking, yet despite the enormity of the tasks ahead I am heartened that there are researchers asking the hard questions, and there are parents and victims of these disorders that are not going to simply accept the status quo. As Thomas Kuhn said in discussing how paradigm shifts occur in scientific thinking:
As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice—there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community… -Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
Scientific development depends…on revolutionary change…The usual prelude to changes of this sort is…the awareness of anomaly, of an occurrence or set of occurrences that does not fit existing ways of ordering phenomena. The changes that result therefore require ‘putting on a different kind of thinking-cap’. — Thomas S. Kuhn, The Essential Tension (1977)
We need to become aware of the anomaly, i.e. the manmade epidemic of neuroimmune disorders, and we need to put bias aside, preconceptions aside, and change the way we are conceptualizing these illnesses. If we don’t, who is going to care for the legions of Autistic children? Certainly not the millions of mothers with CFS, but I know one thing from practicing medicine for 20 years, they will die trying.