At the entrance to one of the schools at which I teach is a quote from the anthropologist Margaret Mead. It reads, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
In my last article I noted the belief of many DAN practitioners that the problem with autism was one of “infections and toxins.” I questioned whether infections and toxins could produce similar effects in T-cell disruption, leading to immune system over-reaction and causing both autism and seizures. (My first article discussed research showing that a meningitis virus in a mouse led to fatal seizures by causing an overreaction of the animal's immune system.) I was also looking for a possible way to link the infections and toxins, but couldn’t piece together how they might interact.
Then one reader directed me to www.autismcalciumchannelopathy.com/Infectious Agents.html, a web-site at which I found some interesting claims. After first noting that various viruses and other pathogens have been implicated in autism, the author noted, “The best association to date have been made between perinatal (around the time of birth) cytomegalovirus and rubella viruses and autism.”
While I've been researching the possible role of the cytomegalovirus as well as other herpes viruses, the rubella connection brought me back to one of my earliest investigations. It was probably more than five years ago that I picked up a book entitled, “Psychiatric Disorders of Children with Congenital Rubella”, published in 1971 by Drs. Stella Chess, Sam Korn, and Paulina Fernandez. The book recounted the 1964 rubella outbreak and the “wide range of physical and intellectual handicaps” suffered by children who were exposed to the virus during pregnancy.
One of the striking findings was a high number of autistic children in this population. Of the 243 children in the study, 10 were classified as autistic, while 8 showed partial symptoms of autism. Two of the paragraphs in the conclusion of the chapter on the autistic children made a strong impression on me.
“The high prevalence of autism in this series of 243 children with congenital rubella inevitably raises the vexed question of the etiology of childhood autism. Our study did not attempt to probe this question, and we cannot offer a conclusive judgment. Nevertheless, there is an inescapable implication in this data. Our findings would appear to support the argument in favor of an organic etiology as against other lines of inquiry.” (P. 122)
“In our series, the existence of congenital disorder in unequivocally established. The exact mechanism by which organic damage manifests itself behaviorally as autism remains to be determined. But the association between congenital rubella and autism is striking. One is led to wonder to what extent this link was ignored in the past, especially before the 1964 epidemic made pediatricians and child psychiatrists more aware of the sequale of rubella.” (P. 123)
Dr. Stella Chess was one of the great figures of child psychiatry, founding the New York Longitudinal Study in 1956, which established the idea of a child’s natural temperament and how that affected their later life. Two years earlier, in 1954 she was the first professor of child psychology at New York Medical College, later founding the pediatric psychiatry unit at Bellevue Hospital, and becoming a long-time professor at NYU.
After reading her book I thought I’d try to contact her. Surprisingly, even though she was in her late 80s she was still at NYU. I was actually a little shocked when a strong, older woman’s voice answered the phone and I explained I was looking for Stella Chess.
“This is Dr. Chess,” she replied.
I quickly explained who I was and she seemed to tolerate me so I asked my question. “Dr. Chess, you wrote about children whose mothers were infected with the rubella virus during pregnancy and the high rate of autism. That seems to clearly show a viral exposure prior to birth leading to autism. But is there any reason why an infant with a poorly functioning immune system might not react the same way? If this infant had a poorly functioning immune system, is there any reason why exposure to rubella, possibly through the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) shot, wouldn’t do the same thing?”
She paused. “We never considered that question.”
“But is it a reasonable question to ask?”
“It’s reasonable,” she agreed.
Dr. Chess died in 2007 at the age of 93. The staff at NYU found out she’d died when she didn’t show up for work that week.
Between the medical literature Stan Kurtz found on PubMed showing links with autism and the herpes virus going back to 1981, the work of Dr. Andrew Wakefield on the measles virus, and Dr. Chess’ work implicating the rubella virus contributing to autism from 1971, it seems clear that some infectious agent is at work. But then how do the toxins come into play?
Going back to www.autismcalciumchannelopathy.com/Infectious Agents.html may provide a potential answer. In the section entitled “Other Issues for Consideration” is the following paragraph. “A series of murine and (other) studies pointing to links between viral infections and absorption and tissue/organ distribution of environmental toxins may be of great relevance. It has been observed for example that the intestinal absorption of cadmium increases during a common viral infection. In the infected animals the absorption of the metal was increased by 70% at low doses and was tripled at high doses compared to non-infected animals. The increased absorption also enhanced the accumulation of cadmium in all studied organs. Redistribution of trace elements already in the body has been noted, with brain levels of mercury increasing twofold during viral infection.”
“Mercury was also shown to change virally-induced myocarditis in a direction compatible with the development of chronic disease and allow increased persistence of virus, indicating theta heavy metals may interact and adversely affect viral replication and development of inflammatory disease.”
Viral infections can lead to increased retention of heavy metals. According to Dr. Isaac Pessah of UC Davis, thimerosal interferes with the ability of the immune system to work properly, theoretically meaning they can't effectively fight viruses and other pathogens. It seems we keep coming back to this unholy duo of infections and toxins.
If we’re able to understand how these two interact with each other in autism I think we’ll be able to change the world. At least the world of our children. And maybe even Keith Olbermann will do a story on it.
Kent Heckenlively is Legal Editor of Age of Autism