passionless Droning about autism

Archive for the ‘Synthetics’ Category

Hello friends –

There is a lot of over simplification in discussions about autism on the Internet, sometimes I don’t think the people that use them really understand that their points are founded on primitive facsimiles of reality, but other times, I’m pretty sure they do know.  That second group are the ones that really leave me in a confused rage; smart enough to know better (or have had the difference explained to them previously), but continue to rely on utilization of grade school quality parameters to govern complicated and entangled systems.  It seems I’m often wrong when I wonder about the reason people do things (doh!), but when someone otherwise sufficiently knowledgeable relies on the crutch of simplicity because they think it bolsters their argument, I do tend to trust their motives before I consider human fallibility.  It reminds me a lot of politicians, especially Republicans.  [sorry] 

That being said, one of the big simplifications you used to see a lot during the thimerosal wars was this gem:

“The poison in the dose.”

I googled this a bit.  This phrase is attributed to Paracelsus, who Wikipedia tells me is considered ‘the father of toxicology’.  He apparently wrote this:

All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.

Good stuff.  By the way, Paracelsus, who no doubt was pretty smart in his day, was born over six hundred goddamn years ago and the primary observation metrics available to Paracelsus was whether or not something died or not.  Sure, oxygen is deadly in sufficient concentrations, as is water, salt, and everything else, so if we want to have a discussion that allows only for endpoints of livingness or death, the parameters laid out by him are good boundaries.  However, if we would like our conversations to allow for somewhat more subtle changes associated with environmental exposures, something a dispassionate evaluation of the data dictates, we may need to find ways to have conversations that allow for endpoints other than death, and we will need to acknowledge that we have lots of evidence to suggest that there are inputs other than dose that are occasionally meaningful, no matter how this might affect our ability to take comfort in one study or the other.  Even worse, we have actual, real empirical data to suggest there are times when there is an inverse dose relationship.

One of my pubmed alerts somewhat tangential to autism sent me the abstract for Differential mRNA expression of neuroimmunemarkers in the hippocampus of infant mice following toluene exposure during brain developmental period.  It’s a doozy:

Toluene, a volatile organic compound with a wide range of industrial applications, can exert neurotoxic and immunotoxic effects. However, the effects of toluene exposure on developmental immunotoxicity in the brain have not yet been characterized. To investigate the susceptible window to toluene exposure during development and the effects of fetal and neonatal toluene exposure on the neuroimmune markers, gestational day (GD) 14 pregnant mice, postnatal day (PND) 2 and PND 8 male offspring were exposed to filtered air (control; 0 ppm), or 5 or 50 ppm toluene for 6 h per day for five consecutive days. The neuroimmune markers in the hippocampus of PND 21 were examined using a real-time RT-PCR and immunohistochemical analysis. Mice exposed to 50 ppm toluene on PND 2–6 showed significantly increased levels of nerve growth factor (NGF) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)- mRNAs. In contrast, NGF and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and proinflammatory cytokines TNF-, CCL3, NF-kB, toll-like receptor (TLR)-4, astrocyte marker glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), and microglia marker ionized calcium binding adapter molecule (Iba)-1 mRNAs were increased significantly in mice exposed to 5 ppm toluene on PND 8–12. These results indicate that low-level toluene exposure during the late postnatal period (PND 8–12) might induce neuroinflammatory mediators via TLR4-dependent NF-?B pathway in the hippocampus of PND 21 male mice. Among the three developmental phases, PND 8–12 seems to be most sensitive to toluene exposure. This is the first study to show developmental phase- and dose-specific changes in neuroimmune markers in infant mice following toluene exposure.

Essentially the authors took a bunch of mice exposed them to different amounts of airborne toluene at different days before and after birth, then looked for a variety of changes in immune system markers and neurotrophic factors in the hippocampus.  Toluene was certainly capable of tinkering around with lots of systems that we know are skewed in the autism population.  Curiously, what they found was that there were time dependent changes that had just as much of an impact than dose of toluene; and in fact, much, much lower doses of toluene were capable of causing more robust changes if the exposure occurred during critical developmental windows. 

The authors state that the timeframe of exposures in this study, postnatal days 2 -6 and postnatal days 8 – 12 roughly map to the early and late third trimester of human fetal development, respectively.  I’ve seen similar equivalencies in other papers, some with earlier and later timeframes, but certainly these timeframes are generally within the range that other papers have used.  Consistent with the theme of this post, I’d just say that rat to human is difficult, and rat to human specific brain area and developmental timeframe equivalency is even more difficult.

The authors speculate that the difference in effect may be related to what was happening, developmentally within the brain at the time of toluene exposure that made the impact.  

During this period, hippocampus undergoes an increase in size and a change in excitatory neurotransmission to allow for adult-like synaptic plasticity by the end of the second postnatal week (Dumas, 2005). This transiently heightened level of brain plasticity is shaped byenvironmental factors which have profound effects on this brain growth spurt (Goodlett et al., 1989). Furthermore, during this period, the immune system undergoes maturation to immunocompetence (Dietert et al., 2000).

There are also some stuff about why the hippocampus is a particularly promising target for investigation into effects of toluene exposure. 

Here are a couple of graphs of their findings:







Check that shit out!  During some very specific developmental timeframes, a decreased exposure resulted in increased physiological effect, not only that, the more affected animals received ten times less agent.   Less poison, more effect.  The exact opposite of what Paracelsus predicts.  [Sorry for the formatting/stupid wordpress!]

Saliently towards autism, these graphs just happen to show some measurements that have great functional overlap with findings from autism.  These graphs are for CCL3, an immune bugler of sorts, a chemokine, an agent responsible for attracting components of the immune response, one numeral down for CCL2, aka MCP-1, which we’ve also seen increased in the in autism brains, iba1, a marker for microglial activation, NGF and BDNF, neurotrophic factors that have a variety of signaling and maintenance processes in the CNS, and we have much data implicating altered BDNF levels in autism

Not only did the authors observe an inverted dose relationship, some of the measurements found that the time dependencies are also reversed from what you might expect in that later exposure was worse than earlier exposure.  Environmental exposures do not necessarily follow the linear timelines you might expect.

The idea of an inverted, or skewed dose relationship has actually been explored for some time.  For example, The frequency of U-shaped dose responses in the toxicological literature   

Hormesis has been defined as a dose-response relationship in which there is a stimulatory response at low doses, but an inhibitory response at high doses, resulting in a U- or inverted U-shaped dose response. To assess the proportion of studies satisfying criteria for evidence of hormesis, a database was created from published toxicological literature using rigorous a priori entry and evaluative criteria. One percent (195 out of 20,285) of the published articles contained 668 dose-response relationships that met the entry criteria. Subsequent application of evaluative criteria revealed that 245 (37% of 668) dose-response relationships from 86 articles (0.4% of 20,285) satisfied requirements for evidence of hormesis. Quantitative evaluation of false-positive and false-negative responses indicated that the data were not very susceptible to such influences. A complementary analysis of all dose responses assessed by hypothesis testing or distributional analyses, where the units of comparison were treatment doses below the NOAEL, revealed that of 1089 doses below the NOAEL, 213 (19.5%) satisfied statistical significance or distributional data evaluative criteria for hormesis, 869 (80%) did not differ from the control, and 7 (0.6%) displayed evidence of false-positive values. The 32.5-fold (19.5% vs 0.6%) greater occurrence of hormetic responses than a response of similar magnitude in the opposite (negative) direction strongly supports the nonrandom nature of hormetic responses. This study, which provides the first documentation of a data-derived frequency of hormetic responses in the toxicologically oriented literature, indicates that when the study design satisfies a priori criteria (i.e., a well-defined NOAEL, > or = 2 doses below the NOAEL, and the end point measured has the capacity to display either stimulatory or inhibitory responses), hormesis is frequently encountered and is broadly represented according to agent, model, and end point. These findings have broad-based implications for study design, risk assessment methods, and the establishment of optimal drug doses and suggest important evolutionarily adaptive strategies for dose-response relationships.

We have other examples from the synthetic world that may be of interest to autism.  For example, in Developmental Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls Interferes with Experience-Dependent Dendritic Plasticity and Ryanodine Receptor Expression in Weanling Rats the authors report an inverted dose relationship regarding exposure to PCBs and dendrite growth.

Developmental A1254 exposure significantly enhanced dendritic growth in cerebellar Purkinje cells and neocortical pyramidal neurons among P31 rats not trained in the Morris water maze, which is consistent with our previous observations that similar exposures accelerated dendritic growth in Purkinje cells and hippocampal CA1 pyramidal neurons between P21 and P60 (Lein et al. 2007). In Purkinje cells, this effect was observed among animals in the 1 mg but not 6 mg/kg/day A1254 group, whereas in neocortical neurons, responses were comparable between A1254 groups. The reason for the different dose–response relationship in different brain regions is not known. Possibilities include regional differences in RyR regulation (Berridge 2006; De Crescenzo et al. 2006; Hertle and Yeckel 2007) or differential upregulation of cytochrome P450 enzymes by AhR ligands in the cerebellum versus neo-cortex (Iba et al. 2003), which could result in regional differences in PCB toxicodynamics and toxicokinetics, respectively.


What about situations where we have evidence for an environmental factors already associated with autism?  Neuroinflammation and behavioral abnormalities after neonatal terbutaline treatment in rats: implications for autism found that terbutaline administration at postnatal day 2 -5 resulted in chronically activated microglia and behavioral abnormalities in rodents, but the same dose in days 11 – 14 resulted in no such effect.  Same dose, different time, different outcome.

There is more, lots more, but how many times must a rule fail primitive logical tests before we acknowledge that it’s utility in complex discussions is extremely limited?  This absolutely is not meant as an expose meant to reignite discussions about thimerosal, but rather, to illustrate the dangers of trying to understand complicated rules by leveraging simplistic heuristics.  There’s a lot of that in the autism discussion landscape; it is a dangerous concoction of hubris and faith to think that we can have gain meaningful insight into our shared mystery by applying very simple rules. 

I haven’t seen the ‘poison is in the dose’ canard used for a while now.  Good riddance and long live models that are not exceedingly simple to invalidate.




Hello friends –

I have decidedly mixed feelings on the genetic side of autism research; clearly genetics plays a part, but it does appear that autism has largely mirrored other complicated conditions in that what we thought we were getting when we cracked the genetic code has, for all practical purposes, failed to materialize.  To what extent our genetic makeup really plays a part in autism more than any other condition that is currently mystifying us, I don’t think we can say with much certainty; unless you want to count some.

To my mind, one particularly bright spot in the gene realm is the associations of the MET-C allele and an increased risk of an autism diagnosis.  At first glance, MET doesn’t seem like a big deal; lots of people have the MET-C mutation, in fact, nearly half of everyone has it.   But people with autism have it just a little more frequently, an observation that has been replicated many times.  But what is exciting is not only that the MET-C findings are robust, but they can also affect a lot of implicated systems in autism in biologically relevant ways.  From an ideological standpoint, the fissure in the autism community about research priorities regarding genetics versus environment, the MET-C studies are a superb example of just how much useful knowledge there is by starting at the genome and working upwards, and finding once we get there that the reality involves lots more than just genes.  There is something for everyone!

Getting to the big picture where we can appreciate the beautiful complexity takes a little bit of digging, but it’s worth the effort. 

Every now and again you’ll see a period piece about the forties, fifties or sixties, and you’ll get a glimpse of the female operator, someone who would take a call and literally connect two parties together; the gatekeeper. The operator’s actions were binary; either she connected the lines and the call went through, or she didn’t, and nothing happened.  Of course, one operator couldn’t connect you to any other phone, but participated in groupings of phones with some logical or functional structure.  Ultimately, the operators were the enabler of communication, physically putting two entities into contact to perform whatever business they had with each other. 

Within our bodies, tyrosine kinases  are enzymes responsible transferring phosphate to proteins; a chemical exchange critical towards a great number of cellular functions, and in a sense, the tyrosine kinases act as cellular operators, helping implement a physical swap of chemicals that ultimately set in motion a great number of processes.  Some very rudimentary cellular functions are initiated by the tyrosine kinases; for example, cell division, which is why mutated kinases can lead to the generation of tumors; i.e., the signaling for cell division gets turned on, and never gets turned off.  Inhibiting tyrosine kinases is the mechanism of action for some drugs that target cancer.  

The MET gene is responsible for creating the MET receptor tyrosine kinase.  This particular receptor is involved in lots of processes that are of great interest to autism; the MET receptor is expressed heavily during embryogenesis in the brain, has immune modulating capacities, and is associated with wound healing, and is particularly implicated in repair of the gastro-intestinal track. 

Kinases don’t just fire away, shuttling phosphates around any old time, they must be activated by a triggering molecule, or a ligand.  There is only one known ligand for the MET receptor; hepatocyte growth factor, or HGF (also sometimes referred to as HGF/SF, or hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor).  We’ll get to why we bother worrying about HGF a little later on, but it is important to keep in mind that without HGF, the functions affected by the MET-C receptor, early brain development, immune modulating, and wound repair cannot be achieved. 

So what about autism, and why is it a beautiful illustration of complexity?  Walking our way through the MET findings in autism is a rewarding task; it is one of the few instances I’ve seen where the glimpses of relevance gleaned from straight genetic studies have been incrementally built upon to achieve a much grander understanding of autism.  This is the kind of thing that I think a lot of people who dismiss the utility of genetic studies are missing; genetics are only the first piece of the puzzle, it doesn’t only implicate genes, it tells us about the processes and the proteins disturbed in autism; and with that knowledge, we can perform targeted analysis for environmental participants.

The first clues about MET involvement with autism came in 2006, when A genetic variant that disrupts MET transcription is associated with autism (full paper) was published.  The abstract is longish, but here is a snipet:

MET signaling participates in neocortical and cerebellar growth and maturation, immune function, and gastrointestinal repair, consistent with reported medical complications in some children with autism. Here, we show genetic association (P = 0.0005) of a common C allele in the promoter region of the MET gene in 204 autism families. The allelic association at this MET variant was confirmed in a replication sample of 539 autism families (P = 0.001) and in the combined sample (P = 0.000005). Multiplex families, in which more than one child has autism, exhibited the strongest allelic association (P = 0.000007).

I appreciate the pleiotropic nature of what we are seeing here, a gene that is involved with brain growth and maturation, immune function, and GI repair.  The association in ‘multiplex’ (i.e., families with more than one child with autism) was very, very strong.  Even still, this was a pretty short paper, and it was all genetics.  Coolness factor:  3.

Neater studies were on the horizon shortly thereafter, a year later, some of the same group looked for expression of MET in post mortem brain tissue and found significantly decreased levels of MET protein in Disruption of cerebral cortex MET signaling in autism spectrum disorder

MET protein levels were significantly decreased in ASD cases compared with control subjects. This was accompanied in ASD brains by increased messenger RNA expression for proteins involved in regulating MET signaling activity. Analyses of coexpression of MET and HGF demonstrated a positive correlation in control subjects that was disrupted in ASD cases.

This is a nice follow up; lots of times a genetic study might suggest a hit, but we really don’t even know how such a genetic change might manifest physiologically, like having a jigsaw puzzle of solid black and finding two pieces that fit together.  In those instances, we can’t really go looking for different levels of the protein, so there you are.  In this case, the authors found an allele worth investigating, and then went looking to see if relevant proteins were altered in the population, and in the CNS no less!  Not only that, but they also looked at the initiating end of the process, the ligand, HGF, and found abnormalities.  Good stuff.  Unfortunately, I haven’t found myself a copy of this paper yet, but the fact that other proteins in the pathway were altered is another line of evidence that something is amiss.  I’ve begun to appreciate the fact that I have spent a long time under appreciating the interconnectedness of biological systems; you aren’t going to have a disturbance in one system without altering the way upstream, and downstream processes are working; so  the fact that we see other proteins, those related to MET functions, modified, makes beautiful sense.  Coolness factor: 5.

Likely because of the mixed findings of skewed proteins in the MET pathway (?), the next study in line is, Genetic Evidence Implicating Multiple Genes in the MET Receptor Tyrosine Kinase Pathway in Autism Spectrum Disorder (full paper available).  Here’s the abstract:

A functional promoter variant of the gene encoding the MET receptor tyrosine kinase alters SP1 and SUB1 transcription factor binding, and is associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Recent analyses of postmortem cerebral cortex from ASD patients revealed altered expression of MET protein and three transcripts encoding proteins that regulate MET signaling, hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (PLAUR) and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (SERPINE1). To address potential risk conferred by multiple genes in the MET signaling pathway, we screened all exons and 5 promoter regions for variants in the five genes encoding proteins that regulate MET expression and activity. Identified variants were genotyped in 664 families (2,712 individuals including 1,228 with ASD) and 312 unrelated controls. Replicating our initial findings, family-based association test (FBAT) analyses demonstrated that the MET promoter variant rs1858830 C allele was associated with ASD in 101 new families (P=0.033). Two other genes in the MET signaling pathway also may confer risk. A haplotype of the SERPINE1 gene exhibited significant association. In addition, the PLAUR promoter variant rs344781 T allele was associated with ASD by both FBAT (P=0.006) and case-control analyses (P=0.007). The PLAUR promoter rs344781 relative risk was 1.93 (95% Confidence Interval [CI]: 1.12−3.31) for genotype TT and 2.42 (95% CI: 1.38−4.25) for genotype CT compared to genotype CC. Gene-gene interaction analyses suggested a significant interaction between MET and PLAUR. These data further support our hypothesis that genetic susceptibility impacting multiple components of the MET signaling pathway contributes to ASD risk.


We’ve got two new genes added to the mix, PLAUR and SERPINE.  The juicy part here is that the authors didn’t look for these variants at random, but performed a targeted search; they knew that the proteins encoded by these genes interact with either MET receptor function or HGF, and they also had found altered expression of these genes in the CNS study.  From the Introduction:

The hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) gene encodes the activating ligand for the MET receptor. HGF is translated as an inactive precursor protein that requires cleavage for efficient binding to the MET receptor [Lokker et al 1992]. The activating cleavage of HGF is achieved most efficiently by the enzyme plasminogen activator (urokinase-type; uPA; gene symbol: PLAU) under conditions in which uPA binds to its receptor, the urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (uPAR; gene symbol: PLAUR). Activating cleavage of HGF can be suppressed by the plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1; gene symbol: SERPINE1). Together, these proteins regulate the activity of MET receptor tyrosine kinase signaling, and our recent microarray analyses of postmortem temporal lobe of individuals with ASD indicate that disrupted MET signaling may be common to ASD pathophysiology [Campbell et al 2007]. For example, we found that there is increased expression of the HGF, PLAUR and SERPINE1 transcripts in ASD in postmortem cerebral cortex. The observation of disrupted expression suggests a general dysfunction of MET signaling in the cerebral cortex of individuals with ASD.

The proteins encoded by PLAUR and SERPINE were also found increased in the expression study; a finding further supported by the genetic study here.  The really grand slice here is that the SERPINE protein suppresses cleavage of HGF; essentially another way MET function can be affected, from a disturbance upstream of HGF binding.   In other words, more SERPINE (possibly as a result of a ‘promoter allele’) would result in less MET receptor activation because the SERPINE interferes with the cleavage of HGF, and thus, another pathway to reduced MET activation.  In a finding that seems 20/20 with hindsight, a functional promoter of the SERPINE gene was found to increase autism risk; i.e., if you have more SERPINE, you get less functional HGF, and therefore less triggering of the MET receptor.  This is cool and begins a portrait of the complexity; it shows how the effect of reduced MET functionality can come from multiple drivers; the reduced MET allele, or, the promoter SERPINE allele, and what’s more, having both is an even bigger risk; the authors are describing a synergy of low penetrance genes.

From the discussion section of the paper:

Beyond genetic susceptibility, the functional integrity of the MET signaling system also is sensitive to environmental factors. This concept is supported by bioinformatics analyses that identified PLAUR, SERPINE1 and HGF as genes active in immune response regulation, sensitive to environmental exposures, and within chromosomal regions previously implicated in ASD linkage studies [Herbert et al 2006]. Moreover, a recent cell biological study shows that chemically diverse toxicants reduce the expression of MET in oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, a result that is interpreted as the convergence of toxicant effects on oxidative status and the MET-regulating Fyn/c-Cbl pathway

Here are links to the Hebert paper, Autism and environmental genomics, and the Li paper, Chemically Diverse Toxicants Converge on Fyn and c-Cbl to Disrupt Precursor Cell Function.  What is neat here is that we are starting to be able to see a pathway of genes, and resultant proteins, that can effect disparate systems.   I believe that there is a subset of acupuncture, acupressure that relies on more knuckles than needles, and while the science on accu* based therapies isn’t very good, it does occur to me that in a sense, our lattice work of HGF-PLAUR-SERPINE proteins that participate in the MET-C process are pressure points in a delicate system, push a little bit and things will bend down the line accordingly.  It also exemplifies why I am offended by highly negative attitudes on genetic studies held by people who believe in a non trivial, environmentally mediated increase in the rates of autism; we are approaching a nearly impossible to overturn reality that genes we know to be associated with autism are particularly sensitive to interference from environmental agents, and participate in immune function.  That is important information.  Coolness factor 8.  First glimpse of beauty factor: 10.

Next up we have Dynamic gene and protein expression patterns of the autism-associated Met receptor tyrosine kinase in the developing mouse forebrain (full paper). 

The establishment of appropriate neural circuitry depends upon the coordination of multiple developmental events across space and time. These events include proliferation, migration, differentiation, and survival – all of which can be mediated by hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) signaling through the Met receptor tyrosine kinase. We previously found a functional promoter variant of the MET gene to be associated with autism spectrum disorder, suggesting that forebrain circuits governing social and emotional function may be especially vulnerable to developmental disruptions in HGF/Met signaling. However, little is known about the spatiotemporal distribution of Met expression in the forebrain during the development of such circuits. To advance our understanding of the neurodevelopmental influences of Met activation, we employed complementary Western blotting, in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry to comprehensively map Met transcript and protein expression throughout perinatal and postnatal development of the mouse forebrain. Our studies reveal complex and dynamic spatiotemporal patterns of expression during this period. Spatially, Met transcript is localized primarily to specific populations of projection neurons within the neocortex and in structures of the limbic system, including the amygdala, hippocampus and septum. Met protein appears to be principally located in axon tracts. Temporally, peak expression of transcript and protein occurs during the second postnatal week. This period is characterized by extensive neurite outgrowth and synaptogenesis, supporting a role for the receptor in these processes. Collectively, these data suggest that Met signaling may be necessary for the appropriate wiring of forebrain circuits with particular relevance to social and emotional dimensions of behavior.

Coooooool.   Here we touch on the complexity of brain formation, all the little things that need to go exactly right, and how MET might play a role in that incredibly complicated dance.  Even better, a mouse model is used to gain an understanding of where and when peak expression of MET proteins occur, a period of significant changes to neural structures and the formation of synapses, the physical structures that enable thought.   This is a dense paper, too dense to get deeply into blockquoting for this posting, but there are some parts that deserve notice, namely, documentation of spatially localized MET expression in brain areas associated with social behaviors and some fine grained information on the specific parts of synapse formation that utilize MET.    Coolness factor: 8.  Complexity Factor: 12.

Here is a paper that a lot of people that play skeptics on the Internet ought to hate, Distinct genetic risk based on association of MET in families with co-occurring autism and gastrointestinal conditions.  (full paper)

In the entire 214-family sample, the MET rs1858830 C allele was associated with both autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions. Stratification by the presence of gastrointestinal conditions revealed that the MET C allele was associated with both autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions in 118 families containing at least 1 child with co-occurring autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions. In contrast, there was no association of the MET polymorphism with autism spectrum disorder in the 96 families lacking a child with co-occurring autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions. chi(2) analyses of MET rs1858830 genotypes indicated over-representation of the C allele in individuals with co-occurring autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions compared with non-autism spectrum disorder siblings, parents, and unrelated controls.

There is a lot of caution in this paper, but the nice part is that there are biologically plausible mechanisms by which a reduction in MET could snowball into problems in the gastro-intestinal track.

In the gastrointestinal system, MET signaling modulates intestinal epithelial cell proliferation, and thus acts as a critical factor in intestinal wound healing. For example, activation of MET signaling via application of exogenous hepatocyte growth factor has been shown to reduce the effects of experimentally induced colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and diarrhea.

Pushing on the other end of the balloon, increasing MET signaling, has been shown to help GI problems; no less than evidence that a genetic change associated with autism has biologically plausible mechanisms by which GI problems would be more prevalent. In fact, unless our findings of MET alleles are in error, or our clinical findings of the effects of HGF are spurious, it is absolutely expected. There is also a section with the startlingly simple, and simultaneously great idea of why findings like these might be useful markers for phenotypic categorization in studies in the future; i.e., to discern the prevalence of GI problems in autism, it might, for example, make sense to design that study to take presence or absence of MET alleles into consideration.  Nice.  Coolness Factor: 7.  Insidiousness factor: 9.

Here’s another one that found associations with MET and social behavior, and GI disturbances again.  Association of MET with social and communication phenotypes in individuals with autism spectrum disorder

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder diagnosed by impairments in social interaction, communication, and behavioral flexibility. Autism is highly heritable, but it is not known whether a genetic risk factor contributes to all three core domains of the disorder or autism results from the confluence of multiple genetic risk factors for each domain. We and others reported previously association of variants in the gene encoding the MET receptor tyrosine kinase in five independent samples. We further described enriched association of the MET promoter variant rs1858830 C allele in families with co-occurring autism and gastrointestinal conditions. To test the contribution of this functional MET promoter variant to the domains of autism, we analyzed its association with quantitative scores derived from three instruments used to diagnose and describe autism phenotypes: the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), and both the parent and the teacher report forms of the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS). In 748 individuals from 367 families, the transmission of the MET C allele from parent to child was consistently associated with both social and communication phenotypes of autism. Stratification by gastrointestinal conditions revealed a similar pattern of association with both social and communication phenotypes in 242 individuals with autism from 118 families with co-occurring gastrointestinal conditions, but a lack of association with any domain in 181 individuals from 96 families with ASD and no co-occurring gastrointestinal condition. These data indicate that the MET C allele influences at least two of the three domains of the autism triad.

Really sort of plain, but very nice to see the GI component validated in another data set.  Coolness factor 5.

Then a few months ago, Prenatal polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure leads to behavioral deficits and downregulation of receptor tyrosine kinase, MET was released, an uber cool showcase of the autism bigfoot, the often regaled, only very rarely documented, gene/environment interaction. 

Gene by environment interactions (G × E) are thought to underlie neurodevelopmental disorder, etiology, neurodegenerative disorders, including the multiple forms of autism spectrum disorder. However, there is limited biological information, indicating an interaction between specific genes and environmental components. The present study focuses on a major component of airborne pollutants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as benzo(a)pyrene [B(a)P], which negatively impacts cognitive development in children who have been exposed in utero. In our study, prenatal exposure of Cpr(lox/lox) timed-pregnant dams to B(a)P (0, 150, 300, and 600 μg/kg body weight via oral gavage) on embryonic day (E14-E17) consistent with our susceptibility-exposure paradigm was combined with the analysis of a replicated autism risk gene, the receptor tyrosine kinase, Met. The results demonstrate a dose-dependent increase in B(a)P metabolite generation in B(a)P-exposed Cpr(lox/lox) offspring. Additionally, a sustained persistence of hydroxy metabolites during the onset of synapse formation was noted, corresponding to the peak of Met expression. Prenatal B(a)P exposure also downregulated Met RNA and protein levels and dysregulated normal temporal patterns of expression during synaptogenesis. Consistent with these data, transcriptional cell-based assays demonstrated that B(a)P exposure directly reduces human MET promoter activity. Furthermore, a functional readout of in utero B(a)P exposure showed a robust reduction in novel object discrimination in B(a)P-exposed Cpr(lox/lox) offspring. These results confirm the notion that common pollutants, such as the PAH B(a)P, can have a direct negative impact on the regulated developmental expression of an autism risk gene with associated negative behavioral learning and memory outcomes.

Oh snap.  A common pollutant (well, common in the last few decades anyways), is shown to interact with MET in a dose dependent fashion to reduce protein expression in the brain during embryonic development and cause ‘a robust reduction in novel object discrimination’. (Ouch)  This is an example of just what we mentioned above, referenced Herbert, concerning the possibility of MET as a gene sensitive to ‘environmental exposures’.  Indeed.  From the discussions section:

The results from the present study demonstrate that the transcription and developmental expression patterns of a replicated ASD risk gene, MET, are highly sensitive to a common PAH pollutant. In utero exposure to B(a)P produces an oxidative milieu of B(a)P metabolites in offspring during a key postnatal period of synapse development, providing evidence that environmental exposure creates a sustained cerebral cortical burden that likely contributes to an increased oxidative load. Oxidative stressors in the form of metabolites would be expected to negatively impact gene expression (Kerzee and Ramos 2000) and, more specifically, receptor tyrosine kinase function, including Met (Li et al. 2007). These data suggest that B(a)P-induced exposure would impact the expression of key neurodevelopmental genes, including Met. Additionally, the predominance of the 3-OH and 9-OH metabolites places a sustained burden in the brain because of the potential for further oxidization to form B(a)P quinones (McCallister et al. 2008, Hood et al. 2000, Brown et al. 2007) which undergo redox cycling to generate reactive oxygen species (Kerzee and Ramos 2000, Bolton et al., 2000).


In conclusion, specific developmental events such as glutamatergic excitatory synapse formation and maturation may be particularly vulnerable to G x E effects that impact regulatory and signaling proteins involved in this process. While we do not suggest that the current study reflects specific defects related to a complex clinical condition such as the ASDs, current molecular, behavioral and functional imaging data are converging on the concept that the ASDs are a manifestation of altered local and long-distance cortical connectivity (Geschwind et al. 2007, Bill and Geschwind 2009, Geschwind and Levitt, 2007, Levitt and Campbell 2009). Also, Met and other related signaling components of this receptor tyrosine kinase pathway have been implicated in both syndromic and idiopathic disorders where the ASDs are diagnosed at a high rate. In combination with risk alleles in key genes, the in utero exposure to PAHs such as B(a)P, which results in both a reduction in absolute levels and the mistiming of peak Met expression, could drive the system toward a pathophysiological threshold that neither genetic risk nor environmental factors could produce individually. The present study focused on the neocortex, but given the highly restricted spatial and temporal expression of Met in mouse limbic circuits associated with social-emotional development and cognition (Judson et al. 2009), it is likely that perturbations occur throughout these key circuits, including in the hippocampus.

Really cool stuff; particularly the finding that developmental, in utero exposure was capable of driving abnormal protein expression well after birth. This is the best of both sides of the genetics versus environment conundrum; the kind of finding that sheds light on how environmental pollutants could be participating in increasing the number of children with autism by interacting with genetically susceptible children.  But what I love about this is that it is the death knell of the fairytale of a static rate, or near static rate of autism, just having the genes or the exposure isn’t enough; instead, the interaction of alleles and timed exposure ‘could drive the system toward a pathophysiolical threshold that neither genetic risk nor environmental factors could produce individually’.  I think there are some more findings coming from this group soon that might be exciting, or terrifying, depending on how you see it.  (or both).  Coolness factor: 99.   

So what have we learned and just how cool is it?

1)      The MET receptor enables some types of cellular signaling that have relevance to the autism community including synapse formation, immune modulation, and gastro intestinal function.  The ligand, or trigger of the MET receptor is HGF.

2)      Certain alleles of the MET gene that result in decreased expression are more common in children with autism than people without autism.

3)      Consistent with findings of increased prevalence of MET alleles, MET protein expression was found to be decreased in brain tissue from people with autism.  Other, related proteins, HGF, PLAUR, and SERPINE were also found to be disturbed.

4)      Following up on the differential findings of SERPINE and PLAUR, genetic studies found gene to gene interactions between the MET allele and alleles involved with production of SERPINE and PLAUR. Some of the proteins in question are known to be particularly vulnerable to environmental interference.

5)      Animal models tell us that MET is heavily expressed in many areas of the mammalian brain during prenatal and postnatal development, and we gain insight into the spatial and temporal expression of MET during the intricate dance of brain formation.

6)      Two studies add evidence that the one function of decreased MET expression, GI disturbances, are indeed found with greater consistency within children with autism and the MET allele.  This should be a relatively unsurprising finding considering what we know about MET and children with autism.

7)      Finally, a portrait of genetic / environmental interactions capable of disturbing physiology and behavior in ways consistent with findings in autism is rendered using an agent that is the product of the automobile age and already associated with decreased cognitive skills for groups with the highest gestational exposure.

It should be noted that this is just a slice of the MET papers out there in the autism realm; they all shared one or more authors, I picked them because they seem to show a nice progression of knowledge, and incremental approach towards learning more.   There is a lof more to learn, in particular, I think that the immune modulating effects of reduced expression would be an interesting subject, but one that will have to wait for another posting. 

–  pD


Hello friends –

There’s been something at the back of my mind for a while now regarding the potential for environmental influences to participate in autism, and indeed, a true rise in the number of children that have developmental problems that I’ve been struggling with articulating elegantly.  The right course came to me while reading threads where the recent autism risk as proximity to highways paper was discussed.   I’m actually not too big on the paper, it is very preliminary, uses some terms that are kind of confusing, and at very best, should be used as a guide for more targeted studies.  For anyone who didn’t see it when it came out, essentially it reported a small increase of risk of having a baby with autism as the pregnant mother lived closer to some types of highways. 

What I liked about this study is that at the core, there was a twinge of a biologically plausible mechanism, specifically, exposure to pollutants during development and consequent interference with neural development.  Examples given in the text including possible endocrine disrupting effects of some types of automotive exhaust, and studies showing altered glutamate expression and associated plasticity defects resulting from pollutants. 


What I didn’t like about the study is that it didn’t include any biomarkers and seemed relatively soft on the definitional terms.  It was essentially a GIS placement and association lookup; lots of data and easy to find phantoms.  A methodologically similar study by Bearman was released a few months previously; purporting to assign a very specific percentage of autism increase (16%) to the spatial proximity of other parents with children with autism, with the idea being that those chatty parents convinced their close neighbors to get their child diagnosed, while those people who more than 500 meters from a child with autism, and therefore don’t talk to as many people, failed to get their child diagnosed.  I came down pretty hard on Bearman and don’t see much difference to apply less skepticism here.  I will note, however, with no small amount of amusement, that when Bearman was discussed, no one seemed too concerned about the lack of control for urbanicity in the ‘skeptical’ realm.  Big surprise.   

The skeptics took the freeway paper apart, or in some instances, took apart a reporter or blogger who was spinning the findings as stronger than they were.  I was more or less in agreement with the skeptics ideas on this one; this paper certainly was not sufficiently strong to make any conclusive statements and as usual, some headlines got it way wrong. 

 On the other hand, according to my underlying principles of subtle change still being meaningful, the humbling complexity of poking around with systems like embryonic development, and the difficult to overstate gulf between what we know and what we think we know about the effects of our reckless introduction of a galaxy of sythentic chemicals into the environment our infants are born into, this study fit in pretty nicely; at the very least as a reason to perform bioinformatic analysis of pregnant women to test for biomarkers of exhaust exposure and cognitive outcomes a few years down the ‘road’.   

It didn’t take long before the gross over simplifications started rolling in though; i.e., ‘If this study is valid, we should have seen the rise in autism when the Interstate program was initiated in the 1950’s!’  [cue laugh track], or ‘I guess I have genes that made me live near an Interstate’.  [cue whoot whoot track] It occurred to me that the Interstate jokes are a good illustration of what is largely wrong with nearly every single discussion on environmental participation you stumble into on the Internet.  On one hand, the notion that unless an environmental study has sufficient power to prove a causal relationship for autism, or indeed, can be shown to be unable to account for all autism cases, it is safe to be mocked, or for the more academically minded, accused of being the result of data dredging.  Similarly, anything showing a glimmer of plausibility that isn’t a genetic finding can lends itself towards showing how worthless the genetic angle is.  These are useful cards to play if your goal is to bash environmental causation theories (and thereby, vaccination causation theories), or if your goal is to bash genetic theories; but ultimately are wastes of time if we want to understand a condition with the murky history and multifaceted manifestations of autism.   The crux of what really bothered me about both sides of the Internet joke is that they each ignore meaningful information that can be offered from the other side.  It is worse than dumb, it is wasteful.

 Stepping away from the environmental end for a moment, I think it is safe to say that everyone is beginning to realize that the hunt for high impact genetic changes that can explain more than a tiny fraction of our autism cases is an abject failure.  While there are some genetic changes, like Fragile X, that confer extremely high risk of autism, the absolute number of people with such changes is relatively simple to determine, and they comprise a vanishingly small subset of the children with autism.  What we do seem to be finding is that there are lots of genetic changes that confer a small risk of having autism, the so called, low penetrance genetic changes.  The idea here is that if you have many, (maybe as many as a dozen or more) low penetrance genes, the cumulative effects build up until a physiological end point is reached wherein autistic behaviors manifest.  I actually like the idea behind low penetrance genes a lot; it makes a lot of our finings of genetics make sense, and I absolutely believe in a strong genetic participation in autism.   

Remember, at the end of the day, genes are nothing more than blueprints for building proteins.  Most genetic alterations don’t involve complete additions, or removals, of proteins, but rather, creation of a little less, or a little more of a protein, or perhaps, creation of proteins that are just a tiny bit different than ‘normal’, sort of like autism itself.   While the environment these proteins enter, or are regulated into entering, starts influencing the eventual biological outcome in the most immediate sense imaginable, the end points of genetics, these proteins and their precise structures are indisputably important in what is happening in everything our bodies do; including, in some instances, have autism. 

Consider the tightly orchestrated formation of the microscopic chasms between neurons, the process of synaptogenesis.  Dozens (or hundreds) of chemicals dance together in order to form the structures in our brains that exchange chemical messengers, neurotransmitters, that literally form the foundation of neuron to neuron communication, and thus, cognition; the physical constructs of thought.  It is a biological cauldron that we are just beginning to comprehend, the mind formingly intricate, time dependent interplay of a chemical deck of cards orders of magnitude more complicated than sequencing the genome. 

The evidence for altered synapses, and modified synaptic function in autism, and most (all?) other developmental disorders is impossible for an intellectually honest observer to deny.  Some of the most commonly found genetic alterations in people with autism involve genes known to participate in the formation, maintenance, or functioning of synapses.  For example, neurexin , shank, and neuroligin, are some well known, or at least, well reported reported genes intimately attached to synapse function also found associated with autism, and our list should also include calcium expression and  adhesion genes (and many, many others).  Each of these genes or processes contribute to the synapse in subtle, but different ways, at different times, and yet we can see that interferences anywhere down the functional class of chemicals is associated with autism.  Yet, very few people, (I’ve read of none), have been found to have a neurixin allele, a shank allele, and a neruoligin mutation.  And there are some people who have the same mutations, but do not exhibit autistic behavior.  There are also a great many people that have no known mutations in any of these genes, and still, receive an autism diagnosis.  What does this tell us?

It should tell us that while there are lots of genetic ways that synapse function can be altered in such a way that autistic behaviors bubble up to the diagnosis endpoint, but more importantly, the critical question need not necessarily revolve around what genes you have, but rather, is synapse function manipulated?  Furthermore, we should be able to conclude that simply having a single modifier (i.e., one shank mutation) go wrong isn’t a guarantee of an autism diagnosis, and thus; the participation of individual mutations is real, but small.  [I would also argue that it is likely that there are a great number of as of yet, undetected genetic misprints that contribute in the same real, but subtle ways.]

Another more accessible example of a low penetrance gene is the MET gene, which produces a protein known to interact with a lot of important processes involved in autism, including brain formation, immune system functioning, and intestinal repair.  There have been a lot of high quality studies on the MET mutations in the past few years including those that report higher incidences of MET mutations in children with autism and gastrointestinal problems, higher findings of MET alleles in autism, association to communication phenotypes and MET expression, replication of above studies, evidence of interaction with other genes known to be associated with autism, decreased expression in post mortem brain tissue, and animal studies showing differential, time dependent expression of MET.  (and many, many others).   

The kicker towards this discussion, howeever, is that the changes to the MET gene are really, very, very common.  Nearly one half of everyone has the low MET production gene, but even still, many more people with autism have it.  So, while it is clearly implicated, other changes are obviously necessary for that particular genetic change to result in autism.  What we are learning about the systems affected by MET, or lots of the genes implicated in autism, is that very subtle changes towards critical processes are sufficient to modify the course of development.  Somewhat counter intuitively, I would argue that the implication of this is compelling evidence (or terrifying news) for those of us with worries about the possibility of an environmentally driven increase in the number of people with an autism diagnosis; indeed, it argues that just like genetics, we must admit the reality that if genes can be low penetrance, so too, then, can environmental impacts.   

For example, back to brain formation.  We know that the neurexin proteins participate in forming our synapses.  But we have evidence that hypo

thyroidism can lead to structural changes during development, and we also know that there is increasing evidence that endocrine disruptors can interferre with thyroid metabolism, or for that matter, a wide range of findings on endocrine disruptors and cognitive function.   Or if we look to pesticides, we have evidence that developmental exposure to diazonon can modify neurotransmitter function, with similar findings are available for other classes of pesticides.  Similarly with heavy metals.

The skeptics would claim with some legitimacy that there are significant dose dependency problems to be addressed before we should start pointing to every experimental slice of evidence of potential harm and claiming that the sky is falling.  But.  What if, in fact, we need only perturb the process of brain development a little bit, and with a little help from other, low penetrance genes or other exposures, developmental trajectories begin to alter?  This would seem to be precisely what we are learning from the genetic angle; it isn’t one big thing incorrectly designed, it is lots of small things.  And while our genetic code has, for the most part, remained stable; our environment today is vastly overpopulated with chemicals capable of minor, but real, effects when compared to yesteryears past.

The search for a single environmental impact with the ability to explain a significant portion of autism diagnosis is as futile as the hunt based on genetics.  This makes for a far messier landscape, but also one that fits my terrifying, over arching principle of the Fairytale of a static (or near static) rate of autism, that our uncontrolled experiment of introducing synthetic chemicals into our environment coupled with widespread social changes with real physiological impacts, a set of experiments absolutely unprecedented in the history of living things on planet Earth, that changes to our offspring are unavoidable.  To suggest otherwise, strikes me as either the height of arrogance, or the depths of ignorance. 

Going back to the freeway study for a minute, I ran into a paper while writing this piece that involves pollutants, interaction with the MET gene, gene x environment interactions, and low penetrance impacts that I think has salience towards this discussion.

 Prenatal polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure leads to behavioral deficits and downregulation of receptor tyrosine kinase, MET. 

Here is the abstract:


Gene by environment interactions (G × E) are thought to underlie neurodevelopmental disorder, etiology, neurodegenerative disorders, including the multiple forms of autism spectrum disorder. However, there is limited biological information, indicating an interaction between specific genes and environmental components. The present study focuses on a major component of airborne pollutants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as benzo(a)pyrene [B(a)P], which negatively impacts cognitive development in children who have been exposed in utero. In our study, prenatal exposure of Cpr(lox/lox) timed-pregnant dams to B(a)P (0, 150, 300, and 600 μg/kg body weight via oral gavage) on embryonic day (E14-E17) consistent with our susceptibility-exposure paradigm was combined with the analysis of a replicated autism risk gene, the receptor tyrosine kinase, Met. The results demonstrate a dose-dependent increase in B(a)P metabolite generation in B(a)P-exposed Cpr(lox/lox) offspring. Additionally, a sustained persistence of hydroxy metabolites during the onset of synapse formation was noted, corresponding to the peak of Met expression. Prenatal B(a)P exposure also downregulated Met RNA and protein levels and dysregulated normal temporal patterns of expression during synaptogenesis (!). Consistent with these data, transcriptional cell-based assays demonstrated that B(a)P exposure directly reduces human MET promoter activity. Furthermore, a functional readout of in utero B(a)P exposure showed a robust reduction in novel object discrimination in B(a)P-exposed Cpr(lox/lox) offspring. These results confirm the notion that common pollutants, such as the PAH B(a)P, can have a direct negative impact on the regulated developmental expression of an autism risk gene with associated negative behavioral learning and memory outcomes.


(my emphasis) 

I have to say, finding this paper was a bit of tragic humor for me; it was published in December 2010, with zero fanfare from the press, as opposed to the confounder heavy, Residential Proximity to Freeways and Autism in the CHARGE study, study, which had a thousand similar articles in Google News.  But here we find a superb example of what gets bandied around a lot when in quick passing but rarely with any meat behind the discussion; a real life, experimentally sound version of a gene environment interaction that integrates biologically plausible mechanisms that is able to describe what is observed physiologically in autism with dose responses.  Beautiful.  But, it gets even better.  It just so happens, the classifications of agents in use in this study, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are generated, in some instances, by car exhaust.  In fact, in Detection of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure from automobile exhaust fumes using urinary 1-hydroxypyrene level as an index, the authors conclude in part that “Automobile exhaust fume exposed subjects have a higher risk to be exposed to PAHs than the non-exposed subjects”.   Go figure.

Whatever the problems with the freeway CHARGE study, they pale in comparison to the problems that the notion that because we didn’t observe increases in autism when the Interstate system was constructed, the findings must be spurious.  Similarly, genetic predisposition is an indisputable fact; and knowing which genes are implicated in autism can help us intelligently target environmental factors that might be changing our infants.   

– pD




Hello friends –

I ran into a few abstracts,  read a few papers, and tried to get my way through one really dense paper in the past few weeks that got me thinking about this post.  It’s  all shook up, like pasta primavera in my head, but hopefully something cogent will come out the other end.  (?)

Of the metabolic conditions known to be associated with having a child with autism, hypothyroidism is one that I keep on running into by way of the pubmed alert grapevine.  By way of example, we have two studies that looked for autoimmune conditions in family members which found hypothyroidism to be one of many autoimmune diseases as a risk factor for autism, including,  Familial clustering of autoimmune disorders and evaluation of medical risk factors in autism, and Increased prevalence of familial autoimmunity in probands with pervasive developmental disorders.   This shouldn’t be too surprising, we know that, for example, perinatal hypothyroidism is a leading cause of mental retardation, with similar findings for the condition during pregnancy.  It turns out, it appears that rates of hypothyroidism are slightly increasing, though at this time, the increases are of relatively small proportions, and as such, may be artifacts unrelated to an actual increase in classically recognized hypothyroidism.  In any case, I think it is safe to say that interference with thyroid metabolism is something to be avoided at all costs when possible.

So after having read about that, this paper showed up in my inbox a while ago:

Effects of perinatal hypothyroidism on regulation of reelin and brain-derived neurotrophic factor gene expression in rat hippocampus: Role of DNA methylation and histone acetylation

Thyroid hormones have long been known to play important roles in the development and functions of the central nervous system, however, the precise molecular mechanisms that regulate thyroid hormone-responsive gene expression are not well understood. The present study investigated the role of DNA methylaion and histone acetylation in the effects of perinatal hypothyroidism on regulation of reelin and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene expression in rat hippocampus. The findings indicated that the activities of DNA methyltransferase (DNMT), methylated reelin and BDNF genes were up-regulated, whereas, the activities of histone acetylases (HAT), the levels of global acetylated histone 3 (H3) and global acetylated histone 4 (H4), and acetylated H3, acetylated H4 at reelin promoter and at BDNF gene promoter for exon II were down-regulated in the hippocampus at the developmental stage of the hypothyroid animals. These results suggest that epigenetic modification of chromatin might underlie the mechanisms of hypothyroidism-induced down-regulation of reelin and BDNF gene expression in developmental rat hippocampus

This gets interesting for autism because reelin, and bdnf levels have been found to be decreased in several studies in the autism population, with direct measurements, genetic expression, mouse knockout based models of autism , and genomic alterations all being implicated.  There have been some negative genetic studies, but considering that it isn’t always the genes you have, but the genes you use, our other available evidence certainly points to BDNF and reelin involvement with some percentage of children with autism, and the association is such that a reduction in reelin or BDNF is a risk factor for developing autism.  It would seem that the paper above might give some insight into the lower level details of the effects of hypothyroidism and subsequent developmental trajectories; modifications of reelin expression; through epigentic mechanisms, no less!.  That’s pretty cool!

Then, I got my hands on a review paper that tries to go into detail as to the functional mechanism by which reelin deficiency could contribute to ASD, Neuroendocrine pathways altered in autism. Special role of reelin.  It is a review that touches on a variety of ways that reelin contributes to neurodevelopment that have findings in the autism realm, including neuronal targeting and migration during brain formation, interactions with the serotonin and GABA systems, testosterone, and oxytocin.   In short, there are plenty of ways that decreased reelin expression can impact development in ways that mirror our some of our observations in autism.

Of the many things that convince me that we are doomed, the proliferation of chemical compounds whose interactions within our bodies we scarcely understand is among them.   In my readings on endocrine disruptors, one thing I found that seemed to be worrying lots of researchers was that some classes of these chemicals are capable of interfering with thyroid metabolism, and in some cases interfering with development of cells known to be associated with autism.    Terrifyingly enough, since I read those papers, several others have come out, including Polybrominated Diphenylether (PBDE) Flame Retardants and Thyroid Hormone during Pregnancy and Mini-review: polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants as potential autism risk factors.     At this point, it is important to point out that, as far as I know, there have not been any studies showing that non occupational exposure to PDBEs or other environmental pollutants can lead to classically defined hypothyroidism, at least none that I know of. (?)    Be that as it may, I think it is realistic to assume any interference in thyroid metabolism is a bad thing, and while finding people in the outlier regions of hypo (or hyper) thyroidism gives us information on extreme environments, it would take someone with a lot of misplaced faith to assume that we can safely disturb thyroid metabolism just a little bit, and everything will come out in the wash.

I’ve had the argument made to me in the past that environmental pollutant driven increases in autism lacked biological plausible mechanisms; this argument is almost always made within a context of trying to defend the concept of a static rate of autism.  While the papers I’ve linked to above do not provide conclusive proof that our changing environment is causing more children to be born with autism, they do provide increasing evidence of a pathway from pollutants to ASD, and indeed,  the lack of biological plausibility becomes an increasingly flacid foundation on which to assume that our observations of an increased rate of autism are illusory.   Unfortunately, in my opinion, the focus on vaccines has contributed to the mindset that a static rate of autism (or nowadays, maybe a tiny increase), must be protected at all costs, including some ideas on the application of a precautionary principle that seem outright insane to me (or at least, the exact opposite of what I would consider to be a precautionary path).

One thing is for certain, the number of child bearing women in developing countries with measurable concentrations of chemicals known to interferre with thyroid metabolism nears 100% in the industrialized nation as we eat , drink, breathe and bathe in the microscopic remnants of packaging materials, deteriorating carpet fibers, and baby clothes that are made to be fire resistant.  This is an environment unambiguously different than that encountered by any other generation of infants in the history of mankind.  To believe that we can modify our environment so drastically without having an impact seems incredibly naive to me, or on some days, just plain old stupid.

– pD

Hello friends –

Recently there have been a few studies that tackled the issue of apparent autism clusters in California, The spatial structure of autism in California, 1993-2001, and Geographic distribution of autism in California: A retrospective birth cohort analysis.   A nice overview and some discussion of these papers can be found at LBRB, here, and here.  One of the arguments we see made there is that the rates of autism diagnosis are, in fact, a reflection of the available services in an area, as opposed to an actual difference in the number of children with autism; essentially that an undiagnosed child with autism who lives far from a center of autism services will not get a diagnosis, but a child born relatively close to such services, will be appropriately diagnosed.  We are measuring diagnosis, as opposed to autism.  I have no doubt that there is some validity to this, but have many doubts that we can, or should, assign all of our observed increases in autism as consequences of this type of artifact. 

There have been several other studies that looked at things like mercury emissions, or airborne pollutants, or Superfund sites and autism rates at larger scales.  However, on a macro level, these types of studies have, so far, been unable to design around a feature of reality; the likelihood that things like Superfund sites or airborne pollution are situated in relative proximity to an urban center, and as such, autism diagnosis services.  In effect, the argument that these observations are diagnostic only is the same; without a controlling factor for diagnostic availability, we can not assume that other parameters are actually responsible.  And again, I have no doubt that this is a force that contributes to the findings of these studies.


At the end of the day, I’m just not satisfied with a God of the Gaps explanation; what we seem to be seeing is just too goddamned important to explain away with the spongy soft and ultimately unmeasurable forces of greater awareness et all. (The Fairytale, 20##). 

Anyways, the other day pubmed alerted me to the publication of  this interesting study: 

 Body burdens of brominated flame retardants and other persistent organo-halogenated compounds and their descriptors in US girls.

BACKGROUND: Levels of brominated flame retardants are increasing in US populations, yet little data are available on body burdens of these and other persistent hormonally active agents (HAAs) in school-aged children. Exposures to such chemicals may affect a number of health outcomes related to development and reproductive function. OBJECTIVE: Determine the distribution of biomarkers of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and organo-chlorinated pesticides (OCPs), such as DDT/DDE, in children, and their variation by key descriptor variables. METHODS: Ethnically diverse cohorts of girls 6-8y old at baseline are being followed for growth and pubertal development in a multi-site, longitudinal study. Nearly 600 serum samples from the California and Ohio sites were analyzed for lipids, 36 PCB congeners, 11 PBDE congeners, and 9 OCPs. The biomarker distributions were examined and geometric means compared for selected analytes across categories of age, race, site, body mass index (BMI), parental education, maternal age at delivery, and breast feeding in adjusted models. RESULTS: Six PBDE congeners were detected among greater than 70% of samples, with BDE-47 having the highest concentration (median 42.2, range 4.9-855ng/g lipid). Girls in California had adjusted geometric mean (GM) PBDE levels significantly higher than girls in Ohio. Furthermore, Blacks had significantly higher adjusted GMs of all six PBDE congeners than Whites, and Hispanics had intermediate values. GMs tended to be lower among more obese girls, while other variables were not strongly associated. In contrast, GMs of the six PCB congeners most frequently detected were significantly lower among Blacks and Hispanics than Whites. PCBs and the three pesticides most frequently detected were also consistently lower among girls with high BMI, who were not breast-fed, whose mothers were younger, or whose care-givers (usually parents) were less educated. Girls in California had higher GMs than in Ohio for the pesticides and most PCB congeners, but the opposite for CB-99 and -118. CONCLUSIONS: Several of these potential HAAs were detected in nearly all of these young girls, some at relatively high levels, with variation by geographic location and other demographic factors that may reflect exposure pathways. The higher PBDE levels in California likely reflect differences in fire regulation and safety codes, with potential policy implications.

The environmental impact argument usually focuses on vaccines, or in some instances, similarly widespread environmental pollutants (i.e., mercury emissions); external forces which tend to operate more or less evenly across large geographic swaths, and also largely independent of things like culture or race.  But with this paper we can observe the counter-intuitive opposite,  chemicals that have achieved widespread distribution in society and the environment, seem to be bioaccumulating differentially according to factors such as geography, race, body type, and education levels.  The paper here mentions fire regulation as a possible factor in state by state differences, but taking things a bit further, it can quickly be seen how socio-economic factors might play a role in why we might observe different levels of chemicals.  It takes a lot of crazy chemistry to make a baby onesie not catch on fire, but at a high level, it involves dousing the material with a bunch of exotic chemicals.  Politically correct or not the facts on the ground are that the well to do white woman has baby showers where she gets a bewildering array of freshly minted, ‘extra safe’ baby clothes more often than,  say, the not so well to do Latina woman.  We have already established a connection between having older parents and a diagnosis of autism, it would seem, there is also a correlation between having older parents and your bodies burden of these molecular mimics; and again, white women tend to have babies at later stages in life than their Black or Latina counterparts; especially the ones that happen to be residing near the trendy autism diagnosis hubs (i.e., the wealthier white women).    The ability for these types of chemicals to cause a variety of difficult to predict developmental trajectories is too long, and terrifying to go into detail in this post; for purposes of this discussion, it is sufficient to understand that we have a growing body of evidence that endocrine disrupting compounds can have wide ranging effects; including epigenetic changes, changes in immune profiles, altered behaviors and neuroanatomical structures known to be abnormal in autism

I found the finding of BDE-47 particularly intriguing, considering it was used as a primer for immunological response measurement by Ashwood, who found in vitro differences in immune responses in the autism population (an exaggerated innate immune response was observed).

Of course, this study does not present sufficient evidence for us to draw conclusions about the geographic distribution of autism rates in the two California studies above; but it should give us enough to pause before we take the comforting road out and assume that our observation are the result of diagnostic artifact alone; such assumptions feel good (except for the guilt), but ultimately require that we ignore our growing knowledge of how unpredictable endocrine disruptors affect the body, and how much more we have to learn.

– pD

Hello friends –

One of my biggest problems with the Fairytale of a Static Rate of Autism is that we need to ignore the reckless environmental engineering that our species has engaged upon in the past few decades.  My concerns lay within the inherent, difficult to underestimate stupidity of our actions, wherein our perceived understanding of the impact our actions are far less pronounced than the actual impact of our actions.   For the telescopic illustration of this worldview, go back any number of years where X is greater than thirty, and see if the expectations and predictions of those times match up well with what has actually occurred.     While our achievements are great and wondrous, it is at our great peril we come to believe we understand sufficiently our actions to predict their outcomes. 

In any case, a progenitor of great concern, or indeed, impending doom, to my mind, is the increasing environmental ubiquity of a variety of industrial chemicals that have the potential to interfere with biological processes in difficult to predict ways, endocrine disruptors.   Although there are no doubt naturally occurring substances with similar properties, for purposes of this discussion, lets assume that my concern (and yours), should be with chemicals that were manufactured by man that have molecular structures so similar to naturally occurring molecules that they can interfere with low level metabolic processes in a myriad of ways that are difficult to understand without very detailed analysis.  Unfortunately, subtle effects during critical developmental time frames can propagate outward into long lasting, not so subtle effects.  Doubling down, we are largely reliant on corporations largely responsible for the next quarter share price to ascertain if subtle effects are happening or not. 

To  start the horror show, considers Bisphenol-A , a plasticizer used in pretty much everything, but especially in things like the tupperware you put in the microwave, bottles you give your baby, canned goods, or anything else you buy in the grocery that has a shelf life.  This particular mish mash of atoms tends to break down into something that is chemically very similar to estrogen, so similar, in fact, that the keys and locks of the cellular machinery of your metabolism can get confused.   It turns out, when this happens, we start seeing disturbing associations between circulating levels of BPA and a variety of conditions you’d rather not have, including heart disease and diabetes.  On top of tons of animal models of BPA exposure and metabolic dysfunction, immune changes, and we now have several human studies wherein urinary levels of these chemicals is associated with adverse outcomes.    And those are just the direct effects!

It would seem that BPA can have epigenetic effects too, wherein it can modulate which genes get expressed, and that’s a lot like getting a whole different set of genes.  For a fascinating (and terrifying) ride, I’d recommend that anyone take a look at this slide show from NOVA science now that goes over some of the effects of BPA to a prenatal environment.  I  double dog dare anyone who doesn’t think we are doomed to watch this episode. 

That was the good news. 

The uncontested facts on the ground are that, as a species, we are being exposed to BPA in ways that no previous generations of humans, or mammals, vertebrates, invertebrates, or living thing has ever been exposed to.  There is no way we are clever enough to understand the ramifications of this, and yet, we have up and distributed BPA in measurable and non trivial concentrations in every human body touched by modern convenience. 

The Scary Chemicals stories will involve research on a variety of chemicals identified as endocrine disruptors with known or suspected properties that would allow them to interact with development in ways meaningful to autism research.   BPA is one.  There are many, many others.

Oh well.

– pD

Hello friends –

This post really ought to be Chapter 1, but since I wrote the other post first, and sort of liked the title, so  we’ll just pretend; these posts are all about make believe in any case, right?

There is only one valid reason not to vigorously pursue environmental causes of autism; you need to believe that our observation of an increased rate of autism, one hundred percent of it, is an artifact of the four horsemen of the imaginary increase:

  • Diagnostic Substitution
  • Greater Awareness
  • Increased Accessibility to Diagnosis
  • Widening of Diagnostic Criteria

Lets start off with a couple of honest admissions and the reason they don’t make a whit of difference if our goal is to expose the notion of a static rate of autism as a fairytale, and a dangerous one at that. 

  • I have read very few papers regarding prevalence fully.  In fact, I can’t think of the title of a single one.   In the context of a precautionary principle, however, the methods and discussion for this type of study don’t really matter much;  because the brush strokes used to craft the results are so necessarily broad and imprecise that they are admitted as meaningless even by people who believe in the fairytale.  Think about it.   The only way we have a static rate of autism is if all of our previous studies utilized methods of such poor quality that they missed ##-## per 100,000 cases of autism, where you get to replace ##-## with any set of numbers lower than 100 as you move backwards in time.  The conclusions in our previous prevalence studies are so discordant over time that the flaws in their methodology are the super strings of the fairytale; responsible for all of our observations of increased autism rates while having  natural physical properties that render them impossible to elucidate on completely.  Given that even the proponents of the fairytale don’t give the methods of previous studies any currency, why should anyone? 


  • I cannot provide meaningful estimates on what percentage of the observed increase in rates is real versus artifact.  Again, however, in the prism of a precautionary principle, it doesn’t matter, because any amount of real increase is alarming, and the only possible unalarming possibility is a zero percent increase.  Here is a little thought exercise to illustrate this; imagine you are on a debate team and the topic is; “Autism rates have risen by X percent, health crisis or not?” and your team has drawn the ‘not a crisis’ side.  Insert any number greater than zero for X, and then try to construct debate points to make this argument to a crowd of skeptics.  This argument is implied whenever the fairytale is invoked, sometimes with the assertion that any real increase is “minor”, but one surefire way to get a storyteller to dissolve from a discussion is to try to get a value more concrete than “minor”  for X.   Autism is a disability, and while there are arguments to be made that it is also a ‘difference’, it isn’t a difference like having red hair or being left handed anymore than dyslexia is a different way of reading; any true increase has broad implications for us all. 


  • I have no doubt that the four factors listed above are, indeed, responsible to one degree or another towards what we are observing in autism rates.   Unfortunately, unless we are able to explain our ever rising rates of autism completely with these explanations, we still must contend with ramifications of a true increase.  

Even with the above caveats, a compelling case can be made that what we are observing is comprised of an actual increase in behaviors consistent with an autism diagnosis,  and the argument that autism rates are static is long on faith and very low on the lifeblood of science; reliable data. 

– pD

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