Sunday, September 20, 2009

Environmental Autism Research Study Follow-Ups? Let's Even Out Genetic and Environmental Autism Research Funding

Right now, about 10 to 20 times more research dollars are spent on studies of the genetic causes of autism than on environmental ones.

We need to even out the funding.

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute Researcher

Recent years have seen the "it's gotta be genetic" stranglehold on autism research funding identified by Teresa Binstock in 1999 break slightly, albeit ever so slightly, with genetic research still overwhelmingly favored for funding purposes at the expense of environmental autism research as reflected in the above quote from Irva Hertz-Picciotto. The obvious danger is that if you look for genetic causes you will find genetic causes and nothing more. If you do not look for environmental causes of autism then those environmental causes will not be found. Possible preventive measures may never be discovered and undertaken and even cures may be missed.

Two studies of particular interest to me were published in the last two years with the authors of both studies qualifying their conclusions with the caution that more research was required, more follow up needed to be done before any firm conclusions could be reached.

The authors of Proximity to point sources of environmental mercury release as a predictor of autism prevalence, Raymond Palmer, Stephen Blanchard and Robert Wood, found that "environmentally released mercury from power plants in 1998 is significantly associated with autism rates in 2002. For every 1000 pounds of release there is a corresponding 3.7% increase in autism rates." The authors also found that "for every 10 miles away from the source, there is a significant 1% decrease in the autism Incident Risk. A 20-mile distance would yield a 2.2% decreased risk."

Palmer, Blanchard and Wood were careful to point out that their study should be viewed as "hypothesis generating" with further research required to examine the role of environmental mercury and childhood developmental disorders. The authors pointed out other existing research related to environmental mercury and autism disorders:

"a host of other plant, animal and human studies have demonstrated that distance to sources of environmental mercury exposure are related to increased body burdens of mercury(Ordonez et al., 2003; Fernandez et al., 2000; Hardaway etal., 2002; Navarro et al., 1993; Kalac et al., 1991; Moore and Sutherland, 1981). However, the effects of duration and dose amounts of environmental exposures are not currently known—and we do not know that body burden of mercury is in fact related to the potential exposure measures used in these analyses.

Mercury is a known immune modulator (Moszczynski,1997). These effects include the production of auto antibodies to myelin basic protein (El-Fawal et al., 1999) and effects on the ratio of Th1/Th2 immunity factors (Kroemer et al., 1996). This is consistent with the literature demonstrating similar types of altered immune function in autistic children (Singh et al., 1997; Singh and Rivas, 2004; Krause et al., 2002; Cohly and Panja, 2005; Vojdani et al., 2003).

I previously blogged about a study noted in the Toronto Star concerning the effects of pollution from two Hamilton, Ontario steel mills on mice living down wind from the mills. The study Germ-line mutations, DNA damage, and global hypermethylation in mice exposed to particulate air pollution in an urban/industrial location was published in PNAS :

"Mice breathing the air downwind from Hamilton's two big steel mills were found to have significantly higher mutation rates in their sperm, a new Health Canada-led study says.

While there's no evidence that residents of the area are experiencing the same genetic changes, the project's lead author says the findings do raise that question.

"We need to do that experiment and find out," said Carole Yauk, a research scientist with Health Canada.

A future study will look at "DNA damage in the sperm of people living in those areas."


Dr. Rod McInnes, director of genetics at Canadian Institutes of Health Research, said the mice could be "the canary in the coal mine" signalling the genetic risks to humans of breathing toxic air. ... While genetic changes in sperm would not affect a male directly, they'd get passed on to the offspring that receive his DNA.

Why did this particular story grab MY attention? We lived on Leominster Drive, in the westerly area of Burlington adjacent to Hamilton for 12 months prior to Conor's conception and a further 9 months until he was born at the Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital in Burlington. Two years later he was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, shortly thereafter changed to Autistic Disorder with profound developmental delays.

No, I have not jumped to any rash conclusions concerning the Hamilton steel mills study but I would certainly be interested in any follow up studies done or planned as suggested by lead author and Health Canada research scientist Carole Yauk Ph. D., who stated that an experiment needed to be done to find out whether residents living in the area would suffer the same consequences. I actually emailed Dr. Yauk and asked about the prospects for the follow up study she had indicated needed to be done. She said she was optimistic that funding would be obtained but that such experiments were very expensive and obtaining grants was very competitive. I don't know if Dr. Yauk was ultimately successful in obtaining funding for her experiments. Hopefully the funding was found.

How about it Autism Speaks? Can you chip in to provide funding for some badly needed environmental autism research?

In the opinion of this humble autism dad it is long past time to shift some of the research funding from the overwhelmingly genetic oriented autism research to environmental based research.

20 to 1 doesn't sound right. Equal parts, 1 to 1, genetic to environmental autism research sounds a whole lot better.

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