Archive for the ‘Willing Disbelief’ Category
The Fairytale of a Static Rate of Autism Part 4: Troubling Realities Acknowledged, The Incredible Shrinking Gods of the Gaps, and Otherwise Rational People Using ‘Small’ As An Empirical Measure To Answer A Critical Question
Posted August 19, 2011on:
Hello friends –
These have been rough times for the people who are heavily invested in the kissing cousin theories of autism as a predominantly genetic disorder and the static, or near static rate of autism. The California twin study that is old news by the time I get this finished showed much different rates of genetic participation than previously believed. These findings exposed the underlying frailty of gene-based causation theories, namely that some of the most widely referenced studies in the autism literature, studies used repeatedly as a basis for the notion that autism was ‘the most highly heritable neurodevelopmental disorder’, were, in fact, relatively underpowered, and suffered from serious temporal and methodological shortcomings.
By contrast, the California study looked at two hundred twin pairs, a lot more twins than any previous study and actually performed autism diagnostics on all of the participating children, whereas other studies relied on medical records. Performing dedicated ADOS diagnosis prospectively on the children allowed the researchers to discern between autism and PDD-NOS, something that not all previous studies were not able to perform, if for no other reason than the DSM-IV wasn’t even released when several of the most often cited studies were published. This is from the Comment section of the California twin study:
The results suggest that environmental factors common to twins explain about 55% of the liability to autism. Although genetic factors also play an important role, they are of substantially lower magnitude than estimates from prior twin studies of autism. Nearly identical estimates emerged for ASD, suggesting that ASD presents the same liability spectrum as strict autism.
This is on top of the fact that there is a quiet, but growing acknowledgement of the fact that literally decades of genetic studies have failed to be able to explain more than a fraction of autism cases despite sequencing of tens of thousands of genomes. This is a very similar situation to a great number of other disorders which we thought we would cure once the human genome was decoded. [Note: That isn’t to say that we haven’t learned a lot from sequencing the genome, just that we didn’t quite get what we thought we were going to get.]
This ‘double hit’, so to speak, has reached a critical mass such that health officials are making politically shrewd, but refreshingly realistic statements, and dare I say, a sliver of common sense may be about to infiltrate the discussion about autism prevalence. For example, as pointed out by Sullivan, Tom Insel, head of the National Institute of Mental Health keeps a blog where he recently blogged ‘Autism Spring’, which included this nugget within the context of continued failure of genetic studies to explain any substantial part of autism, “It is quite possible that these heritability estimates were too high. . .” Ouch. (I would recommend the entire blog posting by Mr. Insel.)
The high heritability estimates, and implicit genetically-mediated cause of autism, are foundational pillars of the argument that autism rates have not changed over time. Though overused, or used wrongly in many instances, there is a kernel of dispassionate reality behind the statement, ‘there is no such thing as a genetic epidemic’. Without the crutch of exceedingly high heritability to rely on, the notion of a stable rate of autism loses the only hard science (read: replicable, biologically-plausible), i.e.,genetics, it ever had, and must place complete reliance on the softer sciences (read: unquantifiable, ‘greater awareness’), i.e.,sociology. This is great news if you love impossible to estimates of prevalence and anecdotes about crazy uncle George who would have been diagnosed with autism forty years ago. However, if you think we should be relying less on psychologists and cultural anthropologists to answer critical questions, and rely more on hard science, this means that the old narrative on autism prevalence holds even less allure than it did in the past, for those of you who thought this was possible.
Before Kid Autism came around, I would occasionally read discussion boards on the creationism versus evolution ‘debate’. One thing that I noticed was that the creationists would often employ a ‘God of the Gaps’-style argument: anything that couldn’t be explained by science (yet), or anything necessary to support whatever fanciful construct had been erected to protect biblical creation fables, was ascribed to the work of God. That’s one thing you have to give to God, he (or she!) can handle it all; it didn’t matter what primitive logical test biblical creation was failing to pass, the golden parachute clause was always that God could have just made things that way. It was a nifty out on the part of the creationists, kind of like a get out of jail free card. The autism prevalence discussion has been working just like this, and the funny part is that the people that are always claiming to have the intellectual high ground, the supposed skeptics, are playing the part of the creationists! Zing!
Here is how it works:
Concerned Parent: It sure does seem like there is more autism than there used to be, what with there being X in a thousand kids with it! That’s much, much more than even ten years ago! My brothers, sisters and I all knew kids with mental retardation and Down’s syndrome, but we just don’t remember kids like we see today.
Supposed Skeptic: It is diagnostic substitution and ‘greater awareness’; autism incidence has been stable. The DSM was changed which resulted in more children being labeled.
Concerned Parent: It sure does seem like there’s more autism than there used to be. Now there are Y kids in a thousand having autism! Why does my son’s preschool teacher keep insisting something is changing?
Supposed Skeptic: It is diagnostic substitution and ‘greater awareness’; autism incidence has been stable. The DSM was changed which resulted in more children being labeled.
Concerned Parent: What the hell? Now there are Z kids in a thousand having autism! When are those genetic studies going to figure autism out, anyway?
Supposed Skeptic: It is diagnostic substitution and ‘greater awareness’; autism incidence has been stable. When does the new DSM come out again?
(Replace X/Y/Z with any progressively larger numbers.)
It doesn’t matter what prevalence number is thrown about–even the astronomical one in thirty-eight figure bandied about for South Korean children didn’t cause so much as a raised eyebrow; the autism equivalent of God of the Gaps, greater awareness and loosening of diagnostic criteria can handle any amount of increase gracefully. It is the equivalent of an uber-absorbent autism paper towel, capable of soaking up any number of new children with a diagnosis; there is, literally, no amount of an increase that the God of the Gaps can’t handle.
If, instead the question was posed like this, ‘How much of the apparent increase in autism is real?’, the answer was always, ‘Zero’, regardless of what the current rates of autism were when you asked the question
Then a funny thing happened, a series of studies from several researchers showed a consistent trend of older parents giving rise to more children with autism than younger parents. There were differences between the studies on just how much of an effect an older parent had, but the overall direction of association was clear. In this instance, there was also the luxury of a plausible biological mechanism that involved the mediator in favor, genetics. The idea is that advancing age in the parent meant more years for gametes to get knocked by a random cosmic zap or other environmental nastygram and this disturbance created genetic problems down the line for the offspring, a theory I think is probably pretty good. Once a couple of these studies started to pile up, there was a small shift in the narrative regarding autism prevalence; after all, nobody could bother to try to deny that parents were getting older compared to past generations. Here is how it looked:
Concerned Parent: What the hell? Now there are X kids in a thousand having autism!
Supposed Skeptic: Greater awareness and diagnostic substitution are primarily responsible for our observations of increased autism, although, ‘a real, small increase’ cannot be ruled out.
And with that, there was a little less autism prevalence for the God of the Gaps to handle. It never seemed to bother anyone that implicit in this argument is an impossible to quantify concept ‘small increase’. If you were to ask someone what rate of autism ‘a small increase’ amounted to with more precision, the answer is whatever amount rises to the level of autism minus the difficult to quantify effect of older parents. That is some lazy stuff.
Here are some examples of prominent online skeptics discussing the possibility of a true rise in autism. See if you can detect a pattern.
Here is Stephen Novella pushing The Fairytale in 2009:
While a real small increase cannot be ruled out by the data, the observed increase in diagnostic rates can be explained based upon increased surveillance and a broadening of the definition – in fact autism is now referred to as autism spectrum disorder.
[Here we see the notion that everything can be explained by the God of the Gaps.]
Here is an example of Orac toying around with this filibuster just the other day, in August of 2011:
True, the studies aren’t so bulletproof that they don’t completely rule out a small real increase in autism/ASD prevalence, but they do pretty authoritatively close the door on their being an autism “epidemic.”
These aren’t the only examples, far from it. Check it out:
It should be noted that the data cannot rule out a small true increase in autism prevalence. (Stephen Novella in 2008)
It should also be noted that all of this research, while supporting the hypothesis that the rise in autism diagnoses is not due to a true increase in the incidence but rather is due to a broadening of the definition increased surveillance, does not rule out a small genuine increase in the true incidence. A small real increase can be hiding in the data. (Stephen Novella, 2008)
We should have the curiosity to wonder, what, exactly, does small mean in these contexts? What percentage size increase should we consider small enough to hide within the data? Five percent? Ten percent? What does ‘small’ mean, numerically, within a range? Is a ten to twenty percent rise in autism rates reason for us to take comfort in the fact that the effect of greater awareness is real? At what level does the percentage of ‘real’ autism increase mandate more than superficial lip service, more than a paragraph about ‘gene-environment interactions’ at the end of a two-thousand word blog post that takes pride in the intellectual chops of outthinking Jenny McCarthy? You won’t get anyone to answer this question; they can’t, because they don’t really know what they mean when they say, ‘small’, other than, ‘it can’t be vaccination’.
How do we know the amount of this increase must, in fact, even be ‘small’? This becomes especially problematic when we consider the smackdown that the canard of autism as ‘among the most heritable neurological conditions’ has taken as of late. If the high heritability estimates of autism are incorrect, yet so often repeated as gospel, why should we also assign confidence to the idea that the increase is trivial? Isn’t one argument the foundation of the other? Did either really have quality data behind them?
This is a terrible, awful, horrible, completely fucking idiotic way to address a question as important as whether or not a generation of children is fundamentally different. We cannot afford the ramifications of being wrong on this, but we seem to find ourselves in an epidemic of otherwise intelligent people willing to accept the pontifications of cultural anthropologists and the feebleness of social scientists on this critical question. I am not arguing against the realities of diagnostic switching and greater awareness affecting autism diagnosis rates. But we can understand that while they are a factor, we must also admit that we have little more than a rudimentary understanding of these impacts, and when we consider the implications of being incorrect, the potential disaster of a very real, not ‘small’ increase in the number of children with autism, we shouldn’t be overselling our knowledge for the sake of expedient arrival at a comforting conclusion. We should be doing the opposite.
If we can’t have the robustly defendable values on autism rates right now, that’s fine, because that is the reality, but we should at least have the courage to acknowledge this truth. This is the nature of still learning about something, which we are obviously doing in terms of autism, but in that situation, we don’t have the currency of scientific debate, decent data, to be saying with authority that any true increase in autism is small.
Unfortunately for the purveyors of The Fairytale, things are going to get a lot worse. The problem is that we are starting to identify extremely common, in some cases, recently more common, environmental influences that subtly increase the risk of autism. These are further problems for a genetic dominant model and effectively mandate that the ‘small increase’ is going to have to start getting bigger as a measurement, with a correlated decrease in the amount of autism that cultural shuffling can be held responsible for. Will anyone notice?
By way of example, we now have several studies that link the seasons of gestation with neurodevelopmental disorders including autism and schizophrenia; i.e., Season of birth in Danish children with language disorder born in the 1958-1976 period, Month of conception and risk of autism, or Variation in season of birth in singleton and multiple births concordant for autism spectrum disorders, which includes in the abstract, “The presence of seasonal trends in ASD singletons and concordant multiple births suggests a role for non-heritable factors operating during the pre- or perinatal period, even among cases with a genetic susceptibility.” Right! As I looked up some of these titles, I found that the evidence for this type of relationship has been well known for a long time; schizophrenia, in particular has a lot of studies in this regard, i.e., Seasonality of births in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder: a review of the literature, which is a review of over 250 studies that show an effect, and I also found Birth seasonality in developmentally disabled children, which includes children with autism and was published in 1989, which is like 1889 in autism research years.
Our seasons have remained constant (but probably won’t stay too constant for much longer. . . ), but this still throws a whole barrel of monkey wrenches into the meme of a disorder primarily mediated through genetics.
More damning for the Fairytale are some studies presented at this year’s IMFAR, and some others just published, that tell us that abnormal immune profiles during pregnancy appear to provide slightly increased risk for autism, roughly doubling the chance of a child receiving a diagnosis. The groovy part is that the studies utilized both direct and indirect measurements of an activated immune system to draw similar conclusions, a sort of biomarker / phenotype crossfire.
From the direct measurement end, we have Cytokine Levels In Amniotic Fluid : a Marker of Maternal Immune Activation In Autism?, which reports that mothers with the highest decile of tnf-alpha levels in the amniotic fluid had about a one and a half times increased risk for autism in their children. This makes a lot of sense considering the robustness of animal models of an acute inflammatory response during pregnancy and its impact on behavior.
Another study, this one from the MIND Institute in California (which I love), is Increased mid-gestational IFN-gamma, IL-4, and IL-5 in women giving birth to a child with autism: a case-control study (full paper). They found that in pregnant mothers, increased levels of IFN-gamma led to a roughly 50% increased risk of an autism diagnosis. Here is a snipet:
The profile of elevated serum IFN-γ, IL-4 and IL-5 was more common in women who gave birth to a child subsequently diagnosed with ASD. An alternative profile of increased IL-2, IL-4 and IL-6 was more common for women who gave birth to a child subsequently diagnosed with DD without autism.
This study took a lot of measurements, and goes to great lengths to explicitly call for additional analysis into the phenomena. IFN-gamma is typically considered pro-inflammatory, while IL-4 and IL-5 are considered regulatory cytokines. In order to determine if these findings were chance or not, the researchers determined if there was a correlation between the levels of IFN-gamma, IL-4, and IL-5, which they reported with very robust results. Less clear is what might be causing these profiles, or how, precisely, they might give rise to an increased risk of autism. The interconnectedness of the brain and the immune systemwould be a good place to start looking for an answer to the last question though.
What about indirect measurements? It just so happens, another paper was published at IMFAR this year that observed the flip side of the coin, conditions associated with altered cytokine profiles in the mother and this study also found an increased risk of autism. The Role of Maternal Diabetes and Related Conditions In Autism and Other Developmental Delays, studied a thousand children and the presence of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity in their mothers in regards to the risk of a childhood autism diagnosis. The findings indicate that having a mother with one or more of those conditions roughly doubles the chances of autism in the offspring. Obesity, in particular, has an intriguing animal model Enduring consequences of maternal obesity for brain inflammation and behavior of offspring, a crazy study that I blogged about when it was published. A variety of auto immune disorders in the parents have been associated with an autism diagnosis in several studies.
The obesity data is particularly troublesome for the idea of a ‘small’ increase in autism, just like parents have been getting older, parents have also been getting fatter, waaaay fatter, (and more likely to have diabetes) the last few decades. There isn’t any squirming out of these facts. If, indeed, being obese or carrying associated metabolic profiles is associated with an increased risk of autism, ‘small’ is getting ready to absorb a big chunk of real increase. But is there any clinical data to support this possible relationship, do we have any way to link obesity data with this autism data from the perspective of harder figures?
It further turns out, there are some very simple to navigate logical jumps between the above studies. Remembering that our clinical measurements indicated that increased INF-gamma, IL-4, and IL-5 from the plasma of the mothers was associated with increased risk, we can see very similar patterns in Increased levels of both Th1 and Th2 cytokines in subjects with metabolic syndrome (CURES-103). Here is part of the abstract, with my emphasis.
Metabolic syndrome (MS) is a cluster of metabolic abnormalities associated with obesity, insulin resistance (IR), dyslipidemia, and hypertension in which inflammation plays an important role. Few studies have addressed the role played by T cell-derived cytokines in MS. The aim of the tudy was to look at the T-helper (Th) 1 (interleukin [IL]-12, IL-2, and interferon-gamma [IFN-gamma]) and Th2 (IL-4, IL-5, and IL-13) cytokines in MS in the high-risk Asian Indian population.
Both Th1 and Th2 cytokines showed up-regulation in MS. IL-12 (5.40 pg/mL in MS vs. 3.24 pg/mL in non-MS; P < 0.01), IFN-gamma (6.8 pg/mL in MS vs. 4.7 pg/mL in non-MS; P < 0.05), IL-4 (0.61 pg/mL in MS vs. 0.34 pg/mL in non-MS; P < 0.001), IL-5 (4.39 pg/mL in MS vs. 2.36 pg/mL in non-MS; P < 0.001), and IL-13 (3.42 pg in MS vs. 2.72 pg/mL in non-MS; P < 0.01) were significantly increased in subjects with MS compared with those without. Both Th1 and Th2 cytokines showed a significant association with fasting plasma glucose level even after adjusting for age and gender. The Th1 and Th2 cytokines also showed a negative association with adiponectin and a positive association with the homeostasis model of assessment of IR and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein.
Check that shit out! Seriously, check that out; increased IFN-gamma, IL-4, and IL-5 in the ‘metabolic syndrome’ group, comprised of people with, among other things, obesity, insulin resistance, and hypertension; the same increased cytokines and risk factors found to increase the risk of autism.
If we look to studies that have measured for TNF-alpha in the amniotic fluid during pregnancy, we quickly find, Second-trimester amniotic fluid proinflammatory cytokine levels in normal and overweight women
There were significant differences in amniotic fluid CRP and TNF-alpha levels among the studied groups: CRP, 0.018 (+/-0.010), 0.019 (+/-0.013), and 0.035 (+/-0.028) mg/dL (P=.007); and TNF-alpha, 3.98 (+/-1.63), 3.53 (+/-1.38), and 5.46 (+/-1.69) pg/mL (P=.003), for lean, overweight, and obese women, respectively. Both proinflammatory mediators increased in women with obesity compared with both overweight and normal women (P=.01 and P=.008 for CRP; P=.003 and P=.01 for TNF-alpha, respectively). There were significant correlations between maternal BMI and amniotic fluid CRP (r=0.396; P=.001), TNF-alpha (r=0.357; P=.003) and resistin (r=0.353; P=.003).
What we are really looking at are five studies the findings of which speak directly to one another; a link to metabolic syndrome during pregnancy and increased IFN-gamma, IL-4, and IL-5, a link to obesity and hypertension in pregnant mothers and autism risk, and an increased risk of autism in mothers wherein IFN-gamma, IL-4, and IL-5 were found to be increased outside of placenta. Further, we have a link between amniotic fluid levels of TNF-alpha and metabolic syndrome, metabolic syndrome in mothers and autism risk, and increased risk from increased tnf-alpha in the amniotic fluid.
As I have said previously, one thing that I have learned during this journey is that when we look at a problem in different ways and see the same thing, it speaks well towards validity of the observations. What we see above is a tough set of data to overcome; we need several types of studies looking at the relationship between metabolic syndrome, immune profiles during pregnancy, and autism from different angles to have reached the same wrong conclusion, something that is increasingly unlikely. We are in an epidemic of obesity and the associated endocrine mish mash of metabolic syndrome, there simply isn’t any diagnostic fuzziness on this. It is happening all around us. Even though the total increase in risk is relatively small, the sheer quantity of people experiencing this condition of risk mandates that the numbers game looks favorable towards a real increase in autism. If we acknowledge this, how can we continue to have faith in the concept that any true increase in the autism rates must be ‘small’?
Is the next argument going to be that besides increased parental age, and heavier or more diabetic mothers, the rest of the autism increase is the result of diagnostic three card monte? (Just how much is the rest, anyways?)
And even though these studies, and likely more in the future, expose the crystal delicate backbone of the ‘small true increase’ argument, I have great pessimism that the people so enamored with invoking this phrase will ever acknowledge its shifting size, much less the implications of being wrong on such a grand scale.
The Fairytale of a Static Rate of Autism Part III – Prevalence Hookups or What if They Threw An Autism Epidemic And Nobody Cared?
Posted May 30, 2011on:
Hello friends –
The osmotic pressure of cool people and pop culture tells me that what we used to call one night stands are now called ‘hookups’, casual sexual encounters as convenient that don’t necessarily mean people are dating, but some release can be found, and everyone moves on with their lives until the next time. This reminds me a lot of how people that ought to know better have been treating autism prevalence studies lately. The results are useful in cementing an already reached conclusion, but ultimately, the findings are only used as isolated ejaculations of the same ideological tweets. Last week’s hookup doesn’t mean anything come this Saturday night, and there is absolutely no reason, no reason, anyone should be troubled to compare this weeks findings used to trumped a static rate of autism with last weeks findings. What we are witnessing is the equivalent of a scientific one night stand, and anyone who doesn’t think the scientific method should be framed for the sake of expediency ought to be furious.
These posts can oftentimes take me a long while to complete, so dating my start point a bit, about two weeks ago, the NHS study from England came out that described a near 1% prevalence of ‘autism’ in adults. The ‘findings’ from this study actually came to light and received attention in the autism community over a year ago, but the real publication happened in May 2011, so there you are.
About a week ago, the Korea ‘study’ on autism came out; it hit the web with a large footprint, and amazingly, described an atmospheric autism ‘prevalence’ of autism of near 2.5%, with 1 in 38 (!!!!) Korean children ‘estimated’ to be on the autism spectrum. If it has not happened already, this study and ‘conclusions’ will soon became part of the autism lexicon; an uber-Kevlar argument, impervious to any concerns involving the possibility of an actual increase in the number of children with autism.
Both of these studies share very similar methodologies; essentially a lot of people were screened through a questionnaire, a subset of people with ‘high’ scores on the questionnaire were subsequently retested with standard tools for assessing autism. Based on how well the questionnaire did at predicting autism spectrum diagnosis, an extrapolation, with various ‘corrections’, was made as towards how many people in the general public are on the spectrum. In both studies, the overwhelming majority of people ‘estimated’ with autism were previously undiagnosed and were not receiving any services.
Here’s the thing that is driving me up the wall crazy, apeshit mystified and enraged. Nobody cared. Let’s look again at what these studies found and see if we can detect anything of potential interest in their conclusions when compared between one another.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, took these two studies as evidence of an autism epidemic, despite the fact that here we have two supposedly (?) well designed studies that found entire spectrum sized differences in the number of children and adults with autism! You could literally drive the old spectrum through the hole in the new spectrum! If both of these two studies are meaningful, if both have accurately captured autism in their respective target populations, we have no choice but to admit that the epidemic is real, and we have proof that children have an autism spectrum disorder two and a half times more frequently than adults. There is an epidemic of autism in our children; or at least, in Korean children!
Did anyone see those headlines that I somehow missed? Did the online skeptical community acknowledge that we now finally have some solid evidence that indeed, autism rates are higher in children than adults, and somehow I failed to see those conversations?
Here’s what really confuses me. Some of the same people, same ‘skeptics’, and same news organizations breathlessly reported both of these findings without, apparently, understanding their implications alongside one another. For example, in 2009, here’s a post from Stephen Novella at Science Based Medicine that touched on the England study that includes this nugget:
They found a consistent prevalence of 1% in all age groups they surveyed. This is remarkable for two reasons – first, they found the exact same 1% figure as the CDC US survey (assuming the CDC data is more accurate than the phone survey published in Pediatrics). This supports the conclusion that the 1% figure may be close to the true prevalence of ASD in the population.
Second, the NHS study found that the prevalence of autism was the same in all age groups, strongly suggesting that true ASD incidence has not been increasing over recent decades and supporting the increased surveillance and definition hypothesis.
Check out how ‘remarkable’ Mr. Novella thinks the 1% matchup between English adults and American children is in terms of making the case for a static rate of autism. This is a guy whose posts outside the autism realm I tend to enjoy in many instances, he is clearly a superior intellect, and applies a very skeptical eye towards his non-autism posts. My presumption is that he was well aware that the NHS study actually diagnosed a grand total of 19 adults, and had good reasons, which he declined to illuminate in that post, for why this relatively low number of results was immune to significant confounding problems, which is why it provided such ‘remarkable’ evidence ‘strongly suggesting that true ASD incidence has not been increasing’.
Then, in May 2011, Mr. Novella posted Autism Prevalence Higher than Thought, concerning the Korea study. Here is a snippet from the conclusions:
This study adds an interesting data point to the whole picture of ASD. If correct, then the theoretically upper limit of ASD prevalence is about 2.6% of the population, more than twice the previous estimate. It also indicates that when you undergo a program of thorough searching, you will find more diagnoses.
What is going on here? The England study, which found a prevalence of 1%, the study that previously was found to be remarkable evidence of a static rate of autism was exactly the same type of study, wide-scale screening for likely candidates within the general population, followed by targeted autism assessment of people with high scores, and backwards extrapolation. Does anyone think that the Korea study was that much more thorough than the England study? If a study came out tomorrow that reported 5%, or 10% prevalance, would we simply assign this to a even more strenously executed methodology? Is there any evidence that we might use to suspect a 5% prevalance reported next week in Columbia is faulty that could not also be applied against Korea?
For what reason should we, now, believe that the England study of adults was so fatally flawed that it missed more than one autistic adult for every one it found? Surely a study capable of missing more than half of the autistic adults had some type of warning signs back in 2009 that might indicate that the evidence might be less than remarkable, maybe questionable, or that, in fact, it might be a Fairytale?
Am I cynical to suggest that what really made the England study such remarkably ‘strong evidence’ of a static rate of autism was that, at the time, it had findings within the statistical range of existing CDC numbers in children? Was the online and media love affair with the England NHS study little more than prevalence hookup? Have I reached the theoretical limit of jadedness?
There really isn’t a way to reconcile these two findings without either accepting a two and a half times increase in autism in children versus adults, a sort of epidemic-lite, or accepting that one or both of the studies suffer from serious flaws. But if we start accepting that the studies might have serious problems, we shouldn’t be saying they are ‘strong evidence’ of anything, except, perhaps, the difficult to overstate problems of autism prevalence studies. Of course, it is a different ballgame if you are relieved of the intellectual responsibility of actually trying to reconcile the two findings; if you allow yourself the prevalence doublethink that England has meaningful data, and so does Korea, and that the rate of autism isn’t increasing, then, no harm, no foul Big Brother.
One prevalence study that didn’t get the booty call was Brief Report: Prevalence of Pervasive Developmental Disorder in Brazil: A Pilot Study, which came out in February, 2011; just three months before Korea. Methodology wise, this study is a kissing cousin to Korea and England, a screening was performed in the general population, and assessments were subsequently performed and then statistical extrapolations were performed to reach a prevalence rate. Let’s see what these values look like up against each other, and see if we can detect a pattern.
Can anyone see a pattern here?
Now the skeptic might tell you that the Brazil study was a lot smaller, which is true; the initial screening of children only contained a little less than 1,500 children. But it hardly matters; just to get to the level of English adults ‘found’, they would have had to miss two children for every child they found, and to approach Korea values, they needed to have missed almost nine children for every child actually diagnosed. Does anyone think this is reality? Why would prospective screening and backwards extrapolation be so accurate in one population, and so wildly inaccurate in another population? The Brazil and England study used versions of the same screening questionnaire!
I understand that being partially funded by Autism Speaks, and having a ‘cultural anthropologist’ with a book on the subject of autism carries some weight in the press conference area; so that might explain why one study got press, and another didn’t. Forgetting the press issue, where are the calls that we should try throwing four thousand Brazilian genomes at a sequencer to see what in their genetic makeup appears to be protecting them from autism so effectively? Why aren’t these studies meaningful evidence of some environmental force acting to create wildly different rates of autism in these different populations?
I would note that the press releases, media regurgitations, and skeptical viewpoints nearly all contained the boilerplate note that more studies are needed. Consider, however, if our need for ‘more study’ is so extensive, if we place so little confidence in our methodologies that papers published within months of each other, with nearly identical study methods, find literally nine times higher rates of autism in one population aren’t a warning sign of an real difference in incidence, what this ought to be telling us is that all of our prevalence data are crapshoots, at best. We shouldn’t get to pick and choose which studies we think are meaningful because they happen to meet comforting quotas, or discard those that fail to support those palliative notions.
It is tempting to look at the Brazil study and evaluate for design or implementation problems that could cause such startlingly low rates of autism; the authors go into some discussion about the reasons their findings might seem so low. Complicating matters along this line, however, is that the Brazil and Korea studies, shared a researcher, the relatively well known psychiatrist with a large pubmed autism prevalence footprint, Eric Fombonne. It occurred to me that it might be a fun experiment to see how reliable Mr. Fombonne has been regarding autism prevalence.
[Click on the image to get a bigger view / stupid wordpress template] Note that I have omitted review papers, or papers that had no abstracts, but it doesn’t really help. (How could it?)
All of these findings were wholly or partially authored by the same person. Is there anything more damning for the state of autism prevalence research than this person continues to be considered a source of reliable information?
I used to live with a fun dude in college; he went to engineering school and went on to work at a manufacturing facility near our town. One of the funniest things he told me about engineering was this quote:
Dilution is the solution to pollution!
In other words, if you have a hundred pounds of diethyl-pthylate-poisonate to dispose of, ship in a hundred thousand gallons of water, and start pumping; if you have two hundred pounds to eject, ship in two hundred thousand gallons of water. This is what is happening to the definition of autism, the quirky element, the ‘broad autistic phenotype’ is seeping into these studies. After dozens, or hundreds of prevalence studies we are ultimately left with as many portraits of different entities as envisioned by the researcher and width of spectrum de jour. The upshot of this, however, is that it makes no sense to try to compare these studies.
In the meantime, we are told time and time again that even though our common sense, our memories of childhood, and the repeated lamentations from every person who has worked with children for the last few decades, all of which are warning us that something is different; all of these things are all supposedly subject to an array of biases so strong that we cannot trust them to reach any conclusions. Only through carefully planned, objective analysis can we reach any conclusions on autism incidence. The results of this choreographed investigation looks like this:
Does anyone really think there aren’t some pretty serious biases operating here? If we cannot use common sense to try to reconcile the picture above, what can we use? If trusting common sense is dangerous to valid conclusions, so is trusting this.
If anyone really thought that Korea and Brazil were measuring the same condition, a condition that until very, very recently has been considered lifelong and severely debilitating, the two wildly different findings would be cause for alarm, undeniable evidence of a massive environmental force influencing the development of autism in some populations. But no one thinks this, no one cares, and that is because; no one really believes these studies are measuring the same thing. But admitting this is dangerous to too many, it is the implicit acknowledgement of just how little we understand, how beholden our policies and research prioritizations are guided by the softest of science and scientists, and ultimately, how frequently we’ve been sold a narrative with the scientifically defendable value of a set of monetized South Florida mortgages.
Such is the way of the prevalence hookup, transiently entertaining, but without meaning from week to week. Until we can find a way past this, past reliance on the shifting sands of behavioral assessments that can vary from researcher to researcher (or by the same researcher!), we can perform all of the ‘thorough investigations’ that we can afford and repeat the ‘findings’ that support our meme until we are blue in the face. None of it will mean a goddamned thing, though we may lose a generation of children while we bounce from one set of findings to another, feeling pleased with the ones that make doom seem unlikely, and discarding the ones that should be cause for great alarm.
The Interconnectedness of the Brain, Behavior, and Immunology and the Difficult to Overstate Flaccidity of The Correlation Is Not Causation Argument
Posted May 12, 2011on:
Hello friends –
I’ve gotten into a lot of discussions online about the vaccines and autism; generally with very poor, if not nonexistent, evidence of having changed any opinions, but relatively strong evidence ( p > .001) that persisting in making my arguments can get you called ‘an antivaccine loon’, ‘idiot’, someone who engages in ‘Gish Gallop’, or the worst insult I’ve received so far, ‘anti-science’. While I am really torn on the vaccine issue, I am certain that both peripheries of this debate are at least somewhat wrong in the conclusions that they’ve drawn from the available evidence. I do believe that lots of parents have witnessed a very real change in their children post vaccination, and I also don’t believe for a single second that vaccines are the cause of an epidemic of autism. It’s a mess and I’ve been poking around the Internet almost five years into journey autism and from my eyes, it hasn’t improved any in the past half decade. This is very sad.
That being said, while I do think we need to have a rational and dispassionate discussion about what our existing vaccine studies can and cannot tell us about autism, I’m really concerned about the fact that the vaccine wars seem to have inoculated otherwise intelligent people from any semblance of intellectual curiosity regarding the immunological findings in the autism realm. That’s a problem, because there are lots of things other than vaccines that can modify the immune response, various environmental agents and cultural changes that are relatively new, and ignoring immunological findings in autism because they happen to intersect with the function of vaccination is a huge, massive, supernova sized disservice to what history will view us poorly on, refusing to perform honest evaluation due to fear and the comfort of willful ignorance.
Here, in this post, I will make the case that this lack of curiosity on immunological findings in autism is either born of a lack of understanding on how much we know about the ties between the immune system and the brain, or alternatively, originates from a deep seated desire to avoid honest interactions. This isn’t to make the case that vaccines can cause autism, or even that the immunological disturbances observed in autism are causative, but rather that an obstinate refusal to consider these as possibilities is the sign of someone who cannot, or will not accept, the biological plausibility of immunologically driven behaviors despite a constellation of evidence.
One of the things that jumps out to me why the autism population might be a subgroup of the population susceptible to changes as a result of immune dysfunction (and thus, potentially adversely affected as a result of vaccination), is the sheer volume of evidence we now have available to us indicating an altered immune response, and indeed, an ongoing state of inflammation within the brain in the autism population, and most strikingly, repeated observations of a correlation between the degree of immune dysregulation as a propensity of an inflammatory state, and the severity of autism behaviors. Again and again we’ve seen that as markers indicative of an inflammatory state increase, so too, do severity of autism behaviors. Not only that, but there are instances wherein the decrease of components known to regulate the immune response decrease, autistic behaviors are more severe. Subtle shifts in either the start or the resolution of the immune response seems to affect autistic behavior severity in the same way. I know coincidences happen all the time, but that doesn’t mean that everything is a coincidence.
We also have a large number of studies that tell us that in vitro, similar levels of stimulation with a variety of agents cause exaggerated or dysregulated production of immune markers in the autism population.
A large percentage of the time that I mention these findings, usually within discussions with an origin in vaccination, someone decides to educate me on one of the most rudimentary scientific axioms:
Correlation does not equal causation.
It must be stated, the above statement is absolutely true. Unfortunately for the people for whom this accurate, but simplistic catchphrase comprises the entirety of their argument, it completely ignores a wealth of research that tells us in very unambiguous terms that there is incontrovertible evidence that crosstalk between the immune system and central nervous system can modify behavior. The research indicating a relationship between immune dysregulation and autism does not exist in a vacuum, but rather, is only a tiny fragment of evidence, mostly accumulated within the last few years, that tells us that the paradigm of the past decades, that of the brain as a immune privileged organ without communication to the immune system, is as antiquated as refrigerator moms and a one in ten thousand prevalence.
From a common sense, why didn’t I think of that standpoint, the best example of the interaction between the brain and the immune response is the old standard, just plain old getting sick. You live in the dirty world, you pick up a pathogen, you get sick, and suddenly you get lethargic and you start to run a fever. But is it the pathogen itself that is actually making you feel like staying in bed all day?
What is being learned is that it is not necessarily the microbial invader that is causing you to get tired and feel sore, but rather, that your decreased energy levels are centrally mediated through your brain, and the triggers for your brain to start a fever include molecules our bodies use for a wide range of communications, including immune based messaging, cytokines. Some of the most common cytokines in the research to follow include IL-6, IL-1B, and TNF-Alpha; so called ‘pro-inflammatory’ cytokines. Researchers have been plugging away at just how the immune response is capable of modifying behaviors, i.e., inducing, sickness behavior for a while now, at least in terms of autism research. From 1998, we have Molecular basis of sickness behavior:
Peripheral and central injections of lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a cytokine inducer, and recombinant proinflammatory cytokines such as interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta) induce sickness behavior in the form of reduced food intake and decreased social activities. Mechanisms of the behavioral effects of cytokines have been the subject of much investigation during the last 3 years. At the behavioral level, the profound depressing effects of cytokines on behavior are the expression of a highly organized motivational state. At the molecular level, sickness behavior is mediated by an inducible brain cytokine compartment that is activated by peripheral cytokines via neural afferent pathways. Centrally produced cytokines act on brain cytokine receptors that are similar to those characterized on peripheral immune and nonimmune cells, as demonstrated by pharmacologic experiments using cytokine receptor antagonists, neutralizing antibodies to specific subtypes of cytokine receptors, and gene targeting techniques. Evidence exists that different components of sickness behavior are mediated by different cytokines and that the relative importance of these cytokines is not the same in the peripheral and central cytokine compartments.
The first sentence in this abstract references a practice that is extremely common in studying the immune system, intentionally invoking a robust immune response by exposing either animals, or cells in vitro, to the components that comprise the cell wall of certain types of bacteria; lipopolysaccharide, or LPS. LPS could be considered a sort of bacterial fingerprint, a pattern that our immune systems, and the immune system of almost everything, has evolved to recognize, and correspondingly initiates an immune response.
Because this is a conversation that frequently has an origin in vaccination, essentially the act of faking an infection, it is salient to remember that the animals or cell cultures aren’t really getting sick when exposed to LPS; there is no pathology associated with whatever type of bacteria might be housed within a cell membrane containing LPS. Usually, when the body is exposed to a gram negative bacteria, and the consequent LPS exposure, there are also effects of the bacteria that interact with the organism, but by only incorporating the alert signal for a bacterial invader, we can gain insight into the effect of the immune response itself; there isn’t anything else to cause any changes. This means that similarly to LPS administration, straight administration of these pro-inflammatory cytokines are similar to the result of getting sick with a pathogen, at least as far as the immune response is concerned.
In the above instance, administration of LPS, or simply cytokines, had been shown to be capable of causing reduced food intake and ‘decreased social activities’.
Later in 1998, Central administration of rat IL-6 induces HPA activation and fever but not sickness behavior in rats (full version), was published wherein the authors report that central administration (i.e., directly into the CNS), of cytokines in isolation (IL-6) or in combination (IL-6 + IL-1B) were capable of inducing altered HPA activation, fevers, and sickness behaviors. Effects of peripheral administration of recombinant human interleukin-1 beta on feeding behavior of the rat was published a few years later, and observed that peripheral administration (i.e., not the CNS) of IL-1B could affect how much a rat ate, with sucrose ingestion being consistently altered during periods of sickness.
Jumping ahead a few years, a review paper Expression and regulation of interleukin-1 receptors in the brain. Role in cytokines-induced sickness behavior reviewed how cytokines participate in sickness behavior, Interleukin-6 and leptin mediate lipopolysaccharide-induced fever and sickness behavior examined the interactions of IL-6 and leptin in sickness behavior, and Behavioral and physiological effects of a single injection of rat interferon-alpha on male Sprague-Dawley rats: a long-term evaluation reported “these data suggest that a single IFN-alpha exposure may elicit long-term behavioral disruptions”.
Much more recently, Sickness-related odor communication signals as determinants of social behavior in rat: a role for inflammatory processes more elegantly found that behavior was modified by LPS exposure, and that this effect was neutralized by concurrent administration of the anti-inflammatory cytokine, IL-10. Similarly, Inhibition of peripheral TNF can block the malaise associated with CNS inflammatory diseases observed another distinct means by which interfering with the immune response could attenuate the effect of faux sickness, in part, concluding, “Thus behavioral changes induced by CNS lesions may result from peripheral expression of cytokines that can be targeted with drugs which do not need to cross the blood-brain barrier to be efficacious.” In other words, what is happening in the periphery, outside of the protective boundaries of the blood brain barrier, can none the less manipulate behaviors that are controlled by the brain.
There are tons, tons more studies like this, but the point should be clear by now; it is accepted that you can achieve some of the same behaviors the come alongside illness, such as fever and lethargy, without the presence of an actual bacteria or virus; all you need is for your brain to think that you are sick.
While it must be acknowledged that the behavioral disturbances observed in autism are a lot different than feeling the need to watch TV all day, these types of studies were among the first clues that the traditional view of the CNS as a separate entity within the gated community of the blood brain barrier needed revision.
Measuring how much sugar water a rat drank is great stuff, but the reality is that we have conservatively a gazillion studies telling us that disorders that manifest behaviorally have strong, strong ties to the immune system; and once we begin to understand the vast scope of these findings, the utter frailty of “correlation does not equal causation” becomes painfully clear to the intellectually honest observer.
The big problem I found myself with in crafting this posting was that the sheer volume of studies available really makes a complete illustration of the literature impossible; I started looking and pubmed nearly puked trying to return to me a listing of all of the things I wanted to summarize. So here is some of the best of the best; to keep things interesting, I thought I’d only include findings from 2007 or later as a mechanism to show just how nascent our understanding of the connections between the brain and the immune system really are.
Initially, we can start with a condition that nearly everyone agrees is diagnosed based on behavior, depression. It turns out, the number of findings establishing a link between immune system markers and depression is wide and deep.
Here’s a great one, Elevated macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) is associated with depressive symptoms, blunted cortisol reactivity to acute stress, and lowered morning cortisol, which reports, that MIF can modify HPA axis function and is tied to depression; a particularly compelling finding considering well documented alterations in HPA axis metabolites in autism, and the fact that increased MIF has also been found in the autism population, and as levels increased, so too did autism severity.
Here is part of the abstract for Inflammation and Its Discontents: The Role of Cytokines in the Pathophysiology of Major Depression (full paper)
Patients with major depression have been found to exhibit increased peripheral blood inflammatory biomarkers, including inflammatory cytokines, which have been shown to access the brain and interact with virtually every pathophysiologic domain known to be involved in depression, including neurotransmitter metabolism, neuroendocrine function, and neural plasticity. Indeed, activation of inflammatory pathways within the brain is believed to contribute to a confluence of decreased neurotrophic support and altered glutamate release/reuptake, as well as oxidative stress, leading to excitotoxicity and loss of glial elements, consistent with neuropathologic findings that characterize depressive disorders.
Somewhere along the way, researchers discovered that some anti-depressants can exert anti-inflammatory effects, for examples of these findings we could look to Fluoxetine and citalopram exhibit potent antiinflammatory activity in human and murine models of rheumatoid arthritis and inhibit toll-like receptors, or Plasma cytokine profiles in depressed patients who fail to respond to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor therapy, which concludes in part, “Suppression of proinflammatory cytokines does not occur in depressed patients who fail to respond to SSRIs and is necessary for clinical recovery”.
In Investigating the inflammatory phenotype of major depression: focus on cytokines and polyunsaturated fatty acids, the authors report that, “The findings of this study provide further support for the view that major depression is associated with a pro-inflammatory phenotype which at least partially persists when patients become normothymic.” A nice review of the evidence of immunological participation in depression can be found in The concept of depression as a dysfunction of the immune system (full paper).
Moving forward, we can look to schizophrenia, we have similar findings, including Serum levels of IL-6, IL-10 and TNF-a in patients with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia: differences in pro- and anti-inflammatory balance, which observed an imbalanced baseline cytokine profile in the schizophrenic group; findings very similar in form with An activated set point of T-cell and monocyte inflammatory networks in recent-onset schizophrenia patients involves both pro- and anti-inflammatory forces. Similarly, the findings from Dysregulation of chemo-cytokine production in schizophrenic patients versus healthy controls, (full paper) which states, in part:
Growing evidence suggests that specific cytokines and chemokines play a role in signalling the brain to produce neurochemical, neuroendocrine, neuroimmune and behavioural changes. A relationship between inflammation and schizophrenia was supported by abnormal cytokines production, abnormal concentrations of cytokines and cytokine receptors in the blood and cerebrospinal fluid in schizophrenia
Their findings include differentially increased and decreased production of chemokines and cytokines as a result of LPS stimulations in the case group. Of particular note, a similarly dysregulated immune profile of cytokine and chemokine generation has been found in the autism population in several studies.
We also have several trials of immunomodulatory drugs in the schizophrenic arena that further implicate the immune system in pathology, including Adjuvant aspirin therapy reduces symptoms of schizophrenia spectrum disorders: results from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, a ‘gold standard’ trial which found that, “Aspirin given as adjuvant therapy to regular antipsychotic treatment reduces the symptoms of schizophrenia spectrum disorders. The reduction is more pronounced in those with the more altered immune function. Inflammation may constitute a potential new target for antipsychotic drug development”. A similar clinical trial, Celecoxib as adjunctive therapy in schizophrenia: a double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial , another gold standard trial, which also had findings in the same vein, “Although both protocols significantly decreased the score of the positive, negative and general psychopathological symptoms over the trial period, the combination of risperidone and celecoxib showed a significant superiority over risperidone alone in the treatment of positive symptoms, general psychopathology symptoms as well as PANSS total scores.” [Celecoxib is a cox-2 inhibitor; i.e., anti-inflammatory, i.e., immunomodulatory]
What about bi-polar disorder? More of the same, including, The activation of monocyte and T cell networks in patients with bipolar disorder, or Elevation of cerebrospinal fluid interleukin-1ß in bipolar disorder, which reports, in part, “Our findings show an altered brain cytokine profile associated with the manifestation of recent manic/hypomanic episodes in patients with bipolar disorder. Although the causality remains to be established, these findings may suggest a pathophysiological role for IL-1ß in bipolar disorder.”. These studies were published in April and March, 2011, respectively.
Brain tissue from persons with bi-polar disorder also showed increased levels of excitotoxicity and neuroinflammation in Increased excitotoxicity and neuroinflammatory markers in postmortem frontal cortex from bipolar disorder patients (full version), and authors report differential cytokine profiles depending on state of mania, depression, or remission in Comparison of cytokine levels in depressed, manic and euthymic patients with bipolar disorder.
Another disorder based solely around behavior, Tourette syndrome, has increasingly unsurprising findings. Polymorphisms of interleukin 1 gene IL1RN are associated with Tourette syndrome reports “The odds ratio for developing Tourette syndrome in individuals with the IL1RN( *)1 allele, compared with IL1RN( *)2, was 7.65.” (!!!) , and Elevated expression of MCP-1, IL-2 and PTPR-N in basal ganglia of Tourette syndrome cases is yet another example of observations of CNS based immune participation in a disorder that is diagnosed by behavior.
There are also some reviews that perform a cross talk of sorts between disorders; i.e., The mononuclear phagocyte system and its cytokine inflammatory networks in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, or Immune system to brain signaling: Neuropsychopharmacological implications, published in May 2011, which has this abstract:
There has been an explosion in our knowledge of the pathways and mechanisms by which the immune system can influence the brain and behavior. In the context of inflammation, pro-inflammatory cytokines can access the central nervous system and interact with a cytokine network in the brain to influence virtually every aspect of brain function relevant to behavior including neurotransmitter metabolism, neuroendocrine function, synaptic plasticity, and neurocircuits that regulate mood, motor activity, motivation, anxiety and alarm. Behavioral consequences of these effects of the immune system on the brain include depression, anxiety, fatigue, psychomotor slowing, anorexia, cognitive dysfunction and sleep impairment; symptoms that overlap with those which characterize neuropsychiatric disorders, especially depression. Pathways that appear to be especially important in immune system effects on the brain include the cytokine signaling molecules, p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase and nuclear factor kappa B; indoleamine 2,3 dioxygenase and its downstream metabolites, kynurenine, quinolinic acid and kynurenic acid; the neurotransmitters, serotonin, dopamine and glutamate; and neurocircuits involving the basal ganglia and anterior cingulate cortex. A series of vulnerability factors including aging and obesity as well as chronic stress also appears to interact with immune to brain signaling to exacerbate immunologic contributions to neuropsychiatric disease. The elucidation of the mechanisms by which the immune system influences behavior yields a host of targets for potential therapeutic development as well as informing strategies for the prevention of neuropsychiatric disease in at risk populations.
All of the conditions above, depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar, and tourettes are diagnosed behaviorally; it is only in the last few years that the medical dimension of these disorders were even understood to exist. None of the studies that I referenced above are more than five years old; the idea that behavioral disorders were so closely entangled with the immune system is very, very new. It should be noted that I intentionally left out disorders that also have reams of evidence of immune participation, but which are more degenerative in nature; i.e., Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s. When discussing autism, I also left out studies involving aberrant presence of auto-antibodies, of which there are many.
One of the things that I have learned in trying to refine my thought processes during my time on the Internet is that rarely does a single study tell us much about a condition; but the converse also holds true, if we have many studies with different methodologies or measurement end points, but they all reach similar conclusions, then the likely-hood that the findings are accurate is much, much greater. All of the studies I have listed above tell us something similar; that the immune system is clearly, unmistakably playing a part in a lot of conditions classically considered neurological and diagnosed behaviorally. It isn’t enough to nitpick flaws in a single one of the studies in order for ‘correlation does not equal causation’ to make meaningful headway into the implications of these studies; instead, all of the studies above, and lots more, have to be wrong in the same way if we would like to return to a place where we can keep our heads in the sand, hoping for coincidences and bleating out catchphrases in the face of clinical findings. That isn’t going to happen. Given this reality, we should not and cannot ignore the growing evidence of immune abnormalities in the autism population, no matter how inconvenient following that trail of evidence might become.
Posted April 14, 2010on:
I hate to write another vaccination related post, but I keep on running into the same, tired argument, and thought it might be nice to have a single place to list and link the reasons that one of the most commonly used defenses of why we don’t need to study the vaccination schedule can be dismantled. The scary part, the really fucking scary part, is how easy it is to deconstruct the metrics being provided by experts as to why questioning the process of vaccination need not be thoroughly evaluated, and how people that ought to know better keep regurgitating the antigen gambit despite its obvious shortcomings when held to the most primitive logical tests.
For some background, lets start with basic immunology and the hows and whys of how vaccines actually work. But even before that, lets be clear: Vaccines work. I have absolutely no doubt that the purpose of vaccines, providing protection against microbial invaders is successful, and saves millions of lives every year. What I’m not so sure of, is whether or not this is the only thing our increasingly aggressive vaccination schedule has been accomplishing.
The functional success of vaccination is that we have crafted a technique that allows us to train our immune system to recognize some very nasty, dangerous, and deadly bacterial and viral pathogens. How is this done? Well, it turns out that at a very detailed molecular level, many bacteria and viruses have very specific patterns on their exterior, for our purposes, an immunological fingerprint that identifies, for example, the tetanus bacteria from the diphtheria bacteria. These fingerprints are known as antigens, and our immune systems use them to store a memory of particular pathogens we have been exposed to, so the next time such a pattern is encountered, a robust immune response can be mounted rapidly, before the pathogen gets a chance to reproduce and get us sick. The memorization of these molecular patterns, the fingerprints of specific bacteria and viruses, is the foundational premise of vaccination; by presenting these antigens to our immune system in a hopefully(?) harmless way, we train our immune system to respond to these invaders without actually having to endure the virulence of the actual bacteria or virus. Making things a bit more complicated, some pathogens have more than one molecular face to present, and as such, more than one fingerprint is necessary for our immune system to recognize. Some others, such as flu, regularly shift their molecular fingerprint; this is why there are seasonal flu shots, each year scientists must make educated guesses as to which particular influenza fingerprints will be most prevalent; when they guess correctly, the vaccine mostly works, because we have trained our immune system to see that particular antigen pattern. Other pathogens, like HIV, undergo such rapid transformation of their outward facing molecular structure that tailoring a molecular portrait of them has proven exceedingly difficult.
So, again at a very high level, vaccines work because they present antigens, immune fingerprints, from viruses or bacteria to our bodies, without the associated virulence of the organisms. The hows of creating the antigens without the problems of actual infection aren’t necessary for this discussion; lets just assume that for our purposes, you can have bacterial or viral fingerprints introduced in a vaccine without having to worry about the traditional ramifications of the actual bacteria or virus they came from. Great!
Given that, lets imagine you are a skeptic and are a bit bothered by the fact that our existing vaccine and autism research seems to be wholly comprised of studies involving either thimerosal, or the MMR. It seems a bit confusing that these two types of studies are sufficient for us to have certainty that the act of vaccination itself, or other vaccines administered at very different ages might be contributing to our apparent observations of increases in autism (or other behavioral or autoimmune disorders). If you raise a question involving this glaring blind spot in our research, a lot of the time you’ll see a response like some of these:
The only thing that makes biological sense in the discussion really is antigens and excipients and if you look at that, today’s kids get FAR fewer than say, my generation.
What is relevant is the number of antigens, and not the number of vaccines, that matters. Antigens are the active part of the vaccine which stimulates the immune response.
Another point directed to those who think that multiple vaccines overload the immune system. In actual fact, even though we are vaccinating against more diseases than in the past, we are actually using fewer antigens (the part of the vaccine which stimulates the immune response) in these vaccines than was previously the case.
You get the picture; the only measurement of interest is the number of antigens in vaccines. To be completely fair to some people that use the antigen gambit, it is in response to its equally simplistic counterpart, the ‘Vaccines Overload The Immune System’ gambit. That’s no excuse, at the end of the day, the people using crank arguments are supposed to be the cranks. What worries me is the people using the antigen gambit, are in many cases, the experts, and in the rest of the cases, folks that have listened to the experts, and parrot something that sounds sciency. It is a frightening day when you realize that if infectious disease experts had a reason, a real reason, we shouldn’t study the entire vaccination schedule, they’d provide one better than the antigen gambit.
The tour de force take down of the Vaccines Overload the Immune System gambit is “Addressing Parents’ Concerns: Do Multiple Vaccines Overwhelm or Weaken the Infant’s Immune System?“, by Paul Offit and others. It’s my guess that this document, published in the highly read Pediatrics journal, plays a big part in people believing that the only important thing about the vaccine schedule is the number of antigens involved. Here is the abstract:
Recent surveys found that an increasing number of parents are concerned that infants receive too many vaccines. Implicit in this concern is that the infant’s immune system is inadequately developed to handle vaccines safely or that multiple vaccines may overwhelm the immune system. In this review, we will examine the following: 1) the ontogeny of the active immune response and the ability of neonates and young infants to respond to vaccines; 2) the theoretic capacity of an infant’s immune system; 3) data that demonstrate that mild or moderate illness does not interfere with an infant’s ability to generate protective immune responses to vaccines; 4) how infants respond to vaccines given in combination compared with the same vaccines given separately; 5) data showing that vaccinated children are not more likely to develop infections with other pathogens than unvaccinated children; and 6) the fact that infants actually encounter fewer antigens in vaccines today than they did 40 or 100 years ago.
The biggest problem here is that the acknowledged, ‘implicit’ concern is that multiple vaccines may overwhelm the immune system. The concern we should be more concerned with is, can vaccines modify the immune system in ways that we cannot predict? This is a question that is not addressed here, but if your premise starts with the wrong question, or in this case, a bad question your conclusions shouldn’t be worth much.
All of the bullet points provided suffer from one or more maladies, including a foundational structure of gross over simplifications, insulting the intelligence of the reader, or in one case, wildly optimistic claims of a study conclusions; the same kind of thing what would get you a special article by the Chicago Tribune if you recommended children with autism try not to eat wheat for a few weeks and see what happens.
For this post, we’ll just focus on the last bullet point, and the text that supports it:
6) the fact that infants actually encounter fewer antigens in vaccines today than they did 40 or 100 years ago
This is the lead in for this question:
Parents who are worried about the increasing number of recommended vaccines may take comfort in knowing that children are exposed to fewer antigens (proteins and polysaccharides) in vaccines today than in the past.
To prove this comforting point, the authors provide this fancy table:
(Bigger view on the link to full paper – they don’t have this table exploded as its own supplement link). The good news is in green here, as noted in the text, the only reduction count in the vaccine schedule after 1960 was the change from DTP to DTAP.
The bad news is that, if counting antigens were a meaningful metric, of well, anything, the chicken pox vaccine, Varicella, now contains more antigens than the rest of the shot schedule combined.
This puts us in somewhat of a conundrum. If the ‘number of antigens’ in vaccines is what is relevant, does this mean that the Varicella vaccine puts nine times more stress on the immune system than the Pneumococcus vaccine? Does the Varicella vaccine initiate an immune response sixty nine times more strenuous than the diphtheria component of the DTAP vaccine? [Good luck finding a study to measure the innate immune response to any of those vaccines in a pediatric population.]
The DTAP was licensed in the 1980s, but Varicella didn’t get licensed until 1990; so this means that children who got DTAP, but didn’t get Varicella, got far fewer antigens, half as many, than children born just a few years later. Is this meaningful?
Here is an interesting way to view the question. Imagine the CDC was addressing a set of parents whose children was born in 1985 who were concerned about those vaccinations overloading the immune system of their children, and this was the response:
Parents who are worried about the increasing number of recommended vaccines may take comfort in knowing that your children were exposed to fewer antigens (proteins and polysaccharides) than in vaccines today.
Does this sound like a good argument?
We might also take a look at how frequently children experience mild side effects from vaccination, according to the CDC web site. Fever is an indicator of innate immune activation, though you will occasionally see arguments made that it is insufficiently characterized to draw conclusions from, but if we are trying to understand if addition of antigens is a useful measurement or not, it would seem the rates of side effects are valid goalposts. Here are some quotes; there isn’t a fancy table of this information yet.
- Varicella: Fever (1 person out of 10, or less) [69 antigens]
- Pneumococcal: Up to about 1 out of 3 had a fever of over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and up to about 1 in 50 had a higher fever (over 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit). [8 antigens]
- MMR Fever (up to 1 person out of 6) [24 antigens]
- DTAP: Fever (up to about 1 child in 4) [4 – 7 antigens]
Now that is curious. According to the CDC, the vaccine with the most antigens causes fever far less frequently than vaccines with many times fewer antigens in them. If we can use addition to gain comfort from the fact that the current vaccine schedule includes fewer antigens than it used to, how do we incorporate in this information?
But if we can’t use addition for our purposes? What if, in fact, the system we are interacting with is much, much too complicated to be usefully outlined with simple addition? What if antigens aren’t the only relevant measuring point in evaluating vaccine impact on the immune system? In this case, why use the reduction in antigens in vaccines as an argument to ‘address parents concerns’? Why has such a gross over simplification achieved ubiquity in the blogosphere and indeed, why was it promulgated by the most frequently interviewed physician when the subject is autism and vaccination?
Ponder the above at your own risk.
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.