passionless Droning about autism

Posts Tagged ‘Fairytale

Hello friends –

I have a confession to make.  The fact that a lot of very smart people have ignored or flat out laughed at my arguments bothers me sometimes.  I have applied non-trivial, not to be rebated time and effort to put forth what I considered to be logical views, scientifically defendable and important ideas; and yet people I knew were otherwise rational, and in some cases, very intelligent, just hadn’t seemed to get what I was saying.  Often this was within the context of a discussion argument of vaccination, but my larger concern, that of a non-imaginary, non-trivial increase in children with autism in the past decades, also usually falls on deaf ears.  If “environmental changes” incorporate the chemical milieu of our mother’s wombs, the microbial world our infants are born into, or the ocean of synthetic chemicals we all swim through every day, we have no rational conclusion but that our environment has changed a lot in the past few decades.  Considered within the context of the reality based model where the events of early life can be disproportionally amplified through the lifetime of an organism, clinging to the idea that there has been a stable incidence of autism seems dangerously naïve, at most charitable.

And yet, for the most part, many or most of the people who are alarmed are crackpots.   There were times I questioned myself.  Am I missing something?  Am I chasing phantoms?  Why aren’t any of these other smart people as worried as I am?

A while ago I got a copy of Microglia in the developing brain: A potential target with lifetime effects (Harry et all), a paper that tells me that if nothing else, I have some good company in pondering the potential for disturbances in early life to uniquely affect developmental outcome, in this instance through alterations to the neuroimmune system.  If I am incorrect about the validity of a developmental programming model with lifetime effects, lots of prolific researchers are wrong about the same thing in the same way.  Harry is a very thorough (and terrifying) review of the relevant literature.  Here is the abstract:

Microglia are a heterogenous group of monocyte-derived cells serving multiple roles within the brain, many of which are associated with immune and macrophage like properties. These cells are known to serve a critical role during brain injury and to maintain homeostasis; yet, their defined roles during development have yet to be elucidated. Microglial actions appear to influence events associated with neuronal proliferation and differentiation during development, as well as, contribute to processes associated with the removal of dying neurons or cellular debris and management of synaptic connections. These long-lived cells display changes during injury and with aging that are critical to the maintenance of the neuronal environment over the lifespan of the organism. These processes may be altered by changes in the colonization of the brain or by inflammatory events during development. This review addresses the role of microglia during brain development, both structurally and functionally, as well as the inherent vulnerability of the developing nervous system. A framework is presented considering microglia as a critical nervous system-specific cell that can influence multiple aspects of brain development (e.g., vascularization, synaptogenesis, and myelination) and have a long term impact on the functional vulnerability of the nervous system to a subsequent insult, whether environmental, physical, age-related, or disease-related.

Hell yeah!

The body of Microglia in the developing brain: A potential target with lifetime effects has tons of great stuff.  From the Introduction

The evidence of microglia activation in the developing brain of patients with  neurodevelopmental disorders(e.g., autism) and linkage to human disease processes that have a developmental basis (schizophrenia) have raised questions as to whether developmental  neuroinflammation actively contributes to the disease process. While much of the available data represent associative rather than causative factors, it raises interesting questions regarding the role of these ‘‘immune-type’’ cells during normal brain development and changes that may occur with developmental disorders. Within the area of developmental neurotoxicology, the potential for environmental factors or pharmacological agents to directly alter microglia function presents a new set of questions regarding the impact on brain development.

There is a short section on what is known about the colonization of the brain by microglia, it is a busy, busy environment, and while we are just scratching the surface, microglia seem to be involved in scads of uber-critical operations, many of which pop up in the autism literature.   It is just being confirmed that microglia constitute a distinct developmental path that diverges as an embryo, two papers from 2007 and 2010 are referenced as reasons we now believe microglia are a population of cells that migrate into the CNS before birth and are not replaced from the periphery in adulthood. From there, the beautiful complexity is in full effect; as the microglia develop and populate the brain there are specific spatial and morphological conditions, microglia are first evident at thirteen weeks after conception, and do not reach a stable pattern until after birth.   In fact, it appears that microglia aren’t done finishing their distribution in the CNS until the postnatal period, “With birth, and during the first few postpartum weeks, microglia disseminate throughout all parts of the brain, occupying defined spatial territories without significant overlap (Rezaie and Male, 2003) suggesting a defined area of surveillance for each cell.”

It occurred to me to wonder if there are differences in microglia settlement patterns in males and females in human infants, as has been observed in other models?  Could a spatially or temporally different number of micoglia, or different developmental profiles of microglia based on sex be a participant in the most consistent finding in the autism world, a rigid 4:1 male/female ratio?

Speaking towards the extremely low replacement rates for microglia in adulthood, the authors wonder aloud on the possible effects of perturbations of the process of microglial colonization.

The slow turn-over rate for mature microglia raises an issue related to changes that may occur in this critical neural cell population. While this has not been a primary issue of investigation there is limited data suggesting that microglia maintain a history of previous events. Thus, if this history alters the appropriate functioning of microglia then the effects could be long lasting. Additionally, a simple change in the number of microglia colonizing the brain during development, either too many or too few, could have a significant impact not on only the establishment of the nervous system network but also on critical  cell specific processes later in life.

(Emphasis mine)

Perhaps coincidentally (*cough*), we have abundant evidence of an altered microglial state and population in the autism population; while we do not know that these findings are the result of a disturbance during development, it is an increasingly biologically plausible mechanism, and thus far, I’ve yet to see other mechanisms given much thought, excepting the chance of an ongoing, undetected infection.

There is a brief section concerning the changes found in adult microglial populations in terms of density, form, and gene expression in different areas of the brain, “With further investigation into the heterogeneity of microglia one would assume that a significant number of factors, both cell membrane and secreted, will be found to be differentially expressed across the various subpopulations.”  Nice.

There is a section of the paper on microglial phenotypes, there are a lot of unknowns and the transformation microglia undergo between functional states is even more nebulously understood during  brain development.  “It is now becoming evident that in the developing brain, many of the standards for microglia morphology/activation may require readdressing.”  We haven’t even figured out what they’re doing in the adult brain!

There is a really cool reference for a study that shows altered microglial function dependent on the age of the organism.

In the adult rodent, ischemia can induce microglia to display either a more ramified and bushy appearance or an amoeboid morphology depending on the level of damage and distance from the infarct site(s). In the immature rodent, ischemia-induced changes in capillary flow or, presumably, altered CNS vascularization can retain the microglia in an amoeboid phenotype for longer and delay the normal ramification process (Masuda et al., 2011).

One way of looking at this would be to say that we should exercise extreme caution in trying to translate our nascent understanding of how mature microglia react when speculating on how immature microglia will act.  To follow up on just how little we know, there is a long discussion about the shortcomings of a the term ‘activated’ microglia with some details on chemical profiles of broadly generalized ‘classically inflammatory, ‘alternatively activated’, ‘anti-inflammatory’, and ‘tissue repair’ phenotypes.

Next up is a dizzyingly list of brain development functions that microglia are known, or suspected to participate in.  Without getting too deep in the weeds, of particular interest to the autism realm, that list includes neurogenesis and differentiation in the cortex [related: Courchesne, me], cell maturation via cytokine generation, axon survival and proliferation [related: Wolff, me],  programmed cell death of Purkinje cells, clearance of ‘early postnatal hippocampul neurons’, and the ‘significant contribution to synaptic stripping or remodeling events’, i.e., pruning (Paolicelli / fractaltine), and even experience dependent microglia / neuron interactions.  Taking all of this (and more) into consideration, the authors conclude “Thus, one can propose that alterations in microglia functioning during synapse formation and maturation of the brain can have significant long-term effects on the final established neural circuitry. “  Ouch.

Next up is a summary of many of the animal studies on microglial participation in brain formation, there is a lot there.  Interestingly (and particularly inconvenient) is the finding that a lot of the functional actions of microglia during development appear to operate after birth.  “Overall, the data suggest that microglial actions may be most critical during postnatal brain maturation rather than during embryonic stages of development.” Doh!

Early life STRESS gets some attention, and for once there is some good news if you look at it the right way.  There is something about a very cool study from Schwarz (et all / Staci Bilbo!) involving drug challenge that peered deep into the underlying mechanisms of an environmental enrichment model; animals given a preferential handling treatment were found by two metrics to have differential microglia response in adulthood with (biologically plausible) observations, increased mRNA levels for IL-10 production, and decreased  DNA methylation; i.e., less restriction on the gene that produces IL-10, and more messenger RNA around to pass off the production orders [totally beautiful!].  There is more including thyroid disruption (though in a way that I found surprising), and the observations of time dependent effects on immue disturbances.  (super inconvenient)

There is so much data that keeps piling on that the authors end up with “Overall, the existing data suggest a critical regulatory role for microglia in brain development that is much expanded from initial considerations of microglia in the context of their standard, immune mediated responses.”

A terrifying concept that I haven’t found time to dedicate a post towards is microglia priming, which gets some attention in Harry.

There is a significant amount of evidence regarding what is often termed ‘‘priming’’ and ‘‘preconditioning’’ events that serve to either exacerbate or provide neuroprotection from a secondary insult, respectively. In these states, the constitutive level of proinflammatory mediators would not be altered; however, upon subsequent challenge, an exaggerated response would be induced. The phenomena of priming represent a phenotypic shift of the cells toward a more sensitized state. . . Exactly how long this primed state will last has not been determined; however, data from microglia suggest that it can extend over an expanded period of time. Preconditioning can also represent changes that would occur not only over the short term but may be long lasting.”

I happen to think that microglia priming is going to be a very important cog in the machinery for this journey when all is said and done; the evidence to support a preconditioning system is strong, and in parallel, the things we see different in autism (and elsewhere) is consistent with a different set of operations of microglia, AND we also have evidence the disturbances that would invoke microglial change are subtle but real risk factors for autism.

What comes next is a type of greatest hits mashup of very cool papers on developmental programming in the CNS.

Galic et al.(2008) examined age related vulnerabilities to LPS in rats to determine critical age periods. Postnatal injection of LPS did not induce permanent changes in microglia or hippocampal levels of IL-1b or TNFa; however, when LPS was given during the critical postnatal periods, PND 7 and 14, an increased sensitivity to drug induced seizures was observed in 8-week-old rats. This was accompanied by elevated cytokine release and enhanced neuronal degeneration within the hippocampus after limbic seizures. This persistent increase in seizure susceptibility occurred only with LPS injection at postnatal day 7 or 14 and not with injections during the first day of life or at PND 20. Similar long-lasting effects were observed for pentylenetetrazol-induced seizures when PND 11 or 16 rat pups were subjected to LPS and hyperthermic seizures (Auvin et al., 2009). These results again highlight this early postnatal period as a ‘‘critical window’’ of development vulnerable to long-lasting modification of microglia function by specific stimuli. Work by Bilbo and co-workers demonstrated LPS-induced deficits in fear conditioning and a water maze task following infection of PND 4 rats with Escherichia coli. In the young adult, an injection of LPS induced an exaggerated IL-1b response and memory deficits in rats neonatally exposed to infection (Bilbo et al., 2005). Consistent with the earlier work by Galic et al. (2008), an age dependency for vulnerability was detected with E. coli-induced infection at PND 30 not showing an increased sensitivity to LPS in later life (Bilbo et al., 2006).

In particular, Galic 2008, or Postnatal Inflammation Increases Seizure Susceptibility in Adult Rats (full paper) was a very formative paper for me; it was elegant in design and showed alarming differences in outcome from a single immune challenge experience, if it occurred during a critical developmental timeframe.  If you haven’t read it, you should.

This paper has a nice way of distilling the complexity of the literature in a readable way.

One hypothesis for developmental sensitivity is the heterogeneous roles for inflammatory factors and pro-inflammatory cytokines during development, including their timing-, region and situation-specific neurotrophic properties. Many of the proinflammatory cytokines are lower at birth with a subsequent rapid elevation occurring during the first few weeks of life. In an examination of the developing mouse cortex between PND 5 and 11, mRNA levels for TNFa, IL-1b, and TNFp75 receptor remained relatively constant while a significant increase in mRNA levels of CR3, macrophage-1 antigen (MAC-1), IL-1a, IL-1 receptor 1 (IL- )R1, TNFp55 receptor (TNFp55R), IL-6, and gp130 occurred (Fig. 2). This data suggests that an upregulation of interleukins and cytokine receptors may contribute to enhanced cytokine signaling during normal cortical development.

One hypothesis put forward using a model reliant on postnatal exposure to LPS suggests that these types of exposure may ‘‘reprogram’’ neuroimmune responses such that adult stress results in hyperactivation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis (Mouihate et al., 2010) and corticosterone  changes (Bilbo and Schwarz, 2009).While limited, the available data suggest that events occurring during development, especially postnatal development, have the  potential to cause long term alterations in the phenotype of microglia and that this can be done in a region specific manner.

[extremely inconvenient]

In what could, conceivably, be a coincidence, our available information on the autism brain also shows region specific changes in microglia populations, microglial activation profiles, and oxidative stress.   I do not believe the findings reviewed in Microglia in the developing brain: A potential target with lifetime effects will be meaningless artifacts; the likelihood that our observations of an altered neuroimmune state in autism are not, at least, participatory has become vanishingly small.

Can these findings inform us on the incidence question?  I was lurking on a thread on Respectful Insolence a while ago, and someone gave what I thought was a very succinct way of thinking about the changes that our species has encountered the past few decades; it went something like “we have replaced infection with inflammation”.  That’s a pretty neat way of looking at how things have gotten different for humanity, at least lots of us, and especially those of us in the first world.  We used to get sick and die early; now we live longer, but oftentimes alongside chronic disorders that share a common underlying biological tether point, inflammation.

Any dispassionate analysis of the available data can tell us that we have, indeed, replaced infection with inflammation; we suffer from less death and misery from infection, but more metabolic disorder, more diabetes, more hypertension, more asthma and autoimmune conditions than previous generations.   We have largely replaced good fatty acids with poor ones in our diet.  All of these conditions are characterized by altered immune biomarkers, including an increase in proinflammatory cytokines.   Those are the facts that no one can deny; we have replaced infection with inflammation.

But when we look to the findings of Microglia in the developing brain: A potential target with lifetime effects, it becomes clear that our newfound knowledge of microglial function and crosstalk with the immune system raises some very troubling possibilities.

Lately it has been quite in vogue among a lot of the online posting about autism to at least mention environmental factors which could participate in developmental trajectory leading to autism; that’s a big step, an important and long overdue acknowledgement.  If you pay close attention, you will notice that 99% of these admissions are handcuffed to the word “prenatal”.  This is likely an attempt to deflect precise questions about the robustness of our evaluation of the vaccine schedule, but the big question, the incidence question, still hinges on fulcrum of the genetic versus environmental ratio ; that is a problem for the purveyors of the fairytale because the prenatal environment of our fetuses, the chemical milieu of their development, is qualitatively different compared to generations past.  That chemical soup is their environment; and that environment has unquestionably changed in the past decades as we have replaced infection with inflammation.

Our previous analysis tells us that invoking inflammation outside the brain modifies microglial function inside the wall of the blood brain barrier; good or bad, no honest evaluation of the literature can argue against a lack of effect.  What happens outside the brain affects what happens inside the brain.  If, however, microglia are active participants in brain formation, as a swath of recent research indicates, can this fact give us insight into the incidence question?

Is a state of increased inflammation the pathway between maternal asthma, depression, stress, and obesity being associated with increased risk of autistic offspring?  Have we replaced infection with inflammation plus?

What could be more lethal to the fairytale of a static tale of autism than a positive relationship between a lifestyle characterized by increased inflammation and the chances of having a baby with autism?

Are we totally fucked?

We cannot know the answers unless we have the courage to ask the difficult questions with methods powerful enough to provide good data, and it won’t be easy.  The static rate of autism fairytale is a comforting notion; it expunges responsibility for the coronal mass ejection sized change to our fetuses developing environment, and while hiding behind the utterly frail findings of social soft scientists, we can happily place tin foil hats and accusations of scientific illiteracy on anyone who might be worried that our abilities have outstripped our wisdom.  That is a terrible, cowardly way to approach the incidence question, what we should be doing is exactly the opposite, ridiculing the epidemic sized error bars in prevalence studies and demanding more answers from the hard scientists.  Eventually we will get there and it will be a critical mass of information from studies like Harry that will propel decision makers to abandon the fairytale for a course regulated by dispassionate analysis.

–          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

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 34 other followers