A new study linking autism to a specific type of neurological problem has buttressed the case against one possible environmental cause of the pervasive developmental disorder. And the conclusions are particularly compelling, given its release three months after the U.S. Vaccine Court awarded $20 million to a Georgia girl for the same condition.
The court ruled Hanna Poling's pre-existing mitochondrial disorder was aggravated by the MMR vaccine, which led to a brain disorder that manifested itself "with features of autism spectrum disorder." The just-published University of California-Davis study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found "children with autism were more likely to have mitochondrial dysfunction."
"The just-published University of California-Davis study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found 'children with autism were more likely to have mitochondrial dysfunction.'"
The study, which showed mitochondrial enzymes in children with autism were only about a third as effective as a control group's, is not definitive, its authors emphasized. Their sample was small -- 10 children with autism and 10 without.
"This is a snapshot of these children," researcher Cecilia Giulivi told Reuters. "I don't know if it is the cause or the consequence of autism."
But in a Dec. 11, 2010, HuffingtonPost piece, Dr. Mark Hyman said the study was notable for being published in JAMA. It found that children with autism had reduced abilities to produce energy in their cells, damaged mitochondria and increased oxidative stress.
Hyman called mitochondria "the energy factories in your cells" and oxidative stress the same chemical reaction that causes cars to rust, apples to turn brown and skin to wrinkle.
"Bottom line," he wrote, "if brain cells cannot produce enough energy, and there is too much oxidative stress, then neurons don't fire, connections aren't made, and the lights don't go on for these children."
A couple weeks after the UC Davis study's release, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a hearing on the safety of mercury in dental fillings.
A Dec. 14, 2010, CBS News piece reported that consumer groups had challenged the FDA's 2009 determination that metal amalgams, which are about 50 percent mercury, are safe. A year before the agency had urged pregnant women to avoid them.
"If brain cells cannot produce enough energy, and there is too much oxidative stress, then neurons don't fire, connections aren't made, and the lights don't go on for these children." - Dr. Mark Hyman, Huffington Post
CBS reporter Jonathan LaPook explained the issue: "Mercury in dental fillings is released in small amounts as vapor that can potentially be inhaled, enter the bloodstream and travel to other parts of the body. Mercury toxicity from other sources can cause kidney and brain damage."
While the American Dental Association insists the metal mixtures are safe, LaPook quoted a skeptical dentist. "You must handle mercury as a hazardous material," Dr. Mark Breiner said. "Why would it be safe in the mouth? It makes no sense, defies all logic."
According to USA Today, after two days of hearings in Maryland, the FDA recommended the matter be reconsidered.
The article did not list autism among the "variety of neurological disorders" linked to mercury in fillings, but an ever-expanding population of parents and scientists have long argued mercury-containing vaccines likewise defy logic.
Mercury has been a mainstay in Western medical science for centuries, as both topical and internal medicines used to treat diseases and conditions from venereal infections to minor scratches. Today, it is a known neurotoxin on which decades of ominous studies have been conducted.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns about one type of mercury found in fish. "For fetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development."
In 2004, FDA and EPA cautioned "women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children" to consciously avoid it by eating "fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury."
Since the earliest cases of autism were reported in 1943, another form of the toxic metal, ethylmercury, has been used as a preservative in childhood vaccines and injected into developing infants' bodies.
"The causes of mitochondrial dysfunction are well-known ... They include environmental toxins -- mercury, lead and persistent organic pollutants." - Dr. Mark Hyman, Huffington Post
In 1986, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act established the Vaccine Court in Washington, D. C., officially called the Vaccine Program/Office of Special Masters, as the sole avenue of justice for families who believe vaccines caused autism or damage to their children.
The act took effect Oct. 1, 1988, and the American immunization schedule immediately ballooned. Since then, the vaccination rate increased from 11 shots of three vaccines to, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 36 shots of 11 vaccines today.
Over the same period, the incidence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) grew alongside the immunization schedules to 1 in 110 American children, according to the latest CDC data. A study of worldwide autism rates by EPA researchers at the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory found the autism epidemic began in 1988-89.
A decade later, in 1999, the U.S. Public Health Service, the American Academy of Pediatricians and drug manufacturers issued a joint statement saying mercury-containing vaccines "should be removed as soon as possible."
The statement, however, only encouraged mercury's removal. The government did not command it. Mercury remains in some vaccines today, including annual flu shots that public health officials recommend for all children.
The causes of mitochondrial dysfunction are well-known, HuffPo blogger Hyman wrote, especially with regard to metabolism and the brain. Mercury begins his list. "They include environmental toxins -- mercury, lead and persistent organic pollutants."
"Despite calls ... to study children whose autism regression mirrors Poling's for underlying predispositions to autism, like mitochondrial disorders, nothing has changed."
A 2007 study from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine published on the PubMed.gov site echoed Hyman's conclusions. "The overall vascular effects of mercury include oxidative stress ... and mitochondrial dysfunction," it said.
The MMR vaccine that the court found contributed to Poling's regression does not contain mercury. The special masters did not implicate the three mercury-containing vaccines -- diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus - she also received at 19 months, immediately before her regression into autism. Her parents sued for compensation in 2002.
Despite calls from sources as credible as former National Institutes of Health Director Bernadine Healy to study children whose autism regression mirrors Poling's for underlying predispositions to autism, like mitochondrial disorders, nothing has changed.
If Poling was born today, it's likely no effort would be made to identify her underlying condition before exposing her to mercury. Her parents would be directed to immunize her the same as any other child.
"Despite the evidence," Hyman wrote, "most physicians don't test for mitochondrial dysfunction, oxidative stress or other myriad factors commonly found in autistic children."
Steven Higgs can be reached at .