Harvard By Kent Heckenlively, Esq.

“You can always tell a Harvard guy,” my dad would say, beginning one of the innumerable jokes he told during my youth.

“How?” my brother and I would respond, knowing we were being set up.

“Because he has to tell you he went to Harvard within the first five minutes you meet him,” came the answer.

If earlier generations of the crimson and black were known for trumpeting their credentials, I have to admit that the current crop now impresses me with their research into solving some of the mysteries of autism. 

Dr. Martha Herbert of Harvard Medical School first caught my attention back in 2005 with her article, “Large Brains in Autism: The Challenge of Pervasive Abnormality.”  Dr. Herbert was investigating the most replicated finding in autism neuroanatomy, namely that autistics seem to have unusually large brains.  In her review of autism research, she noted that the picture which was emerging suggested inflammation as a reason for the large brains observed in autistic children.

Dr Herbert wrote, “Although there is a great deal of heterogeneity to the medical complaints that frequently accompany autism, there are common threads that may indicate common or related molecular and cellular mechanisms between body and brain.  For instance, the pathophysiologies of inflammation and oxidative stress, and excitotoxicity are greatly linked, and it appears these types of mechanisms are implicated in the brain as well as some of the sensory and sleep regulation, epilepsy, immune, and gastro-intestinal complaints commonly seen in autism.”

To translate the medical-speak, inflammation is something we know from infections or injuries, oxidative stress is another expression for the signs of stress on the body from chemicals, and excitotoxicity is another word for how nerve cells responds to toxins. 

This is all extremely important to the autism community because as Dr. Herbert explains, “the awareness that the brain as well as medical conditions of children with autism may be conditioned by chronic biomedical abnormalities such as inflammation opens the possibility that meaningful biomedical interventions may be possible well past the window of maximal neuroplasticity in early childhood.  . .”A recent addition to this Harvard gang appears to be Dr. Elizabeth Sajdel-Sulkowsa, also of Harvard Medical School with the publication of the article, “Oxidative Stress in Autism: Elevated Cerebellar 3-nitrotyrosine Levels.”  The study looked at postmortem human brain tissues, their concentrations of nitrotyrosine, a relatively specific marker of oxidative damage, brain mercury levels, and levels of the antioxidant selenium, between control and autistic subjects.

While the results were preliminary because of the small sample size (you know, it’s just so difficult to get good brains these days!), in their conclusion the authors stated, “Based on the cumulative evidence of aforementioned data and the findings derived from our study, we propose a tentative oxidative-stress mediated model of autistic pathology.  This model incorporates possible environmental impacts and is also consistent with recent genetic analysis that identified several genes linked to autism . . . Polymorphism for metal-responsive transcription factor (MTF-1) in autism potentially alters expression of metallothionein and tissue levels of heavy metals such as mercury.”

The next time I meet a Harvard guy, the first question I’ll ask him after he tells me where he went to school is, “Oh, do you know Dr. Herbert, or Dr. Sajel-Sulkowska?” 

None of them are autistic as far as I know, but for my money, they’ve got really big brains!


Kristina Chew

My son was born with a big brain which did not (as the pediatrician pointed out) mean anything other than that he had a big brain. It's been an "unexpected childhood" (as I wrote in the article below) and the Ivy League is not his future; it's a good life. Best wishes.


Dan Olmsted

Kent -- This is fascinating information. It points once again at an environmental cause triggering brain inflammation in a subset of kids who can't get rid of whatever the toxin is. As you point out, it's important regardless of whether it implicates mercury (the research is certainly consistent with that idea) but because our commitment needs to be to helping sick kids. Let's hope autism is environmental rather than genetic, but the former is treatable. That's why all the money going down the drain for gene studies is a tragic waste -- it's going to be much easier to figure out what the exposure is and stop it, than to figure out what the genetic component is and fix it.

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