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Photo of an autistic child with a horse at a specialized riding school.

A girl with autism embraces a horse at a specialized riding school in Germany.

Photograph by Ulla Kimmig, Cosmos/Redux

Susan Brink

for National Geographic

Published February 6, 2014

Autism is as mysterious a disease as it is tragic. While there is clearly a genetic component to some forms of the illness, it remains unclear how many genes are involved and what role the environment may play in causing the varying degrees of cognitive and social impairment classified as autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

New research published February 6 in the journal Science points to another possible player in this complex of causes: the interplay of hormones and chemicals affecting the fetus during birth. (See "One Thing We Know About Autism: Vaccines Aren't to Blame.")

In a study led by Yehezkel Ben-Ari of the Mediterranean Institute of Neurobiology in Marseille, France, strains of pregnant mice modeled to give birth to offspring showing autistic behaviors were given a drug to lower their levels of chloride. Their offspring, which would normally have been expected to show signs of the disease, were born with no symptoms of autism.

An earlier study in mice in 2006  showed that oxytocin, a hormone that triggers contractions, also acts as a critical "switch" affecting the function of a neurotransmitter called GABA. Usually, GABA excites neurons in the growing brain of the fetus. But during the birth process, oxytocin makes GABA quiet the neurons instead, protecting the fetus's vulnerable brain. When this switch doesn't happen, the neurons remain in their excited state, and chloride, a key signaling molecule, builds to higher-than-normal levels. The mice are born with autism. (See also "Oxytocin: The 'Love Hormone' Might Also Help in Autism.")

In the study announced today, the same group of researchers administered a drug called bumetanide, which reduces chloride levels, to two kinds of pregnant rats modeled for autism. Their offspring were born with normal brain function. Conversely, blocking oxytocin in normal pregnant mice resulted in offspring showing autistic-like behaviors.

The result of the rodent study adds further hope to a 2012 clinical trial of 60 human children aged 3 to 11 years old who were given bumetanide. The drug reduced the severity of autism symptoms in the children.

The rodent study does not suggest a way of treating humans prenatally to prevent autism, however, since there is no way to identify fetuses that will later develop the disease as young children. But it provides information to develop further research in animals and in humans.

"If this result is confirmed," says Ben-Ari, "then it implies that what we need is as early diagnosis as possible. We know that the earlier the treatment, the better the success."

The search for biomarkers that might some day identify autism in the uterus—brain waves, blood or urine tests, or clues in amniotic fluid—is an active area of research, says Andrew Zimmerman, a pediatrician at the Lurie Center for Autism at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

30 comments
Paula Durbin-Westby
Paula Durbin-Westby

First you start off with a disease model and "tragedy" rhetoric. Autism is not a "disease;" it is a developmental disability. The tragedy comment is entirely unnecessary. Whether or not mice can be "autistic" is questionable, and many of us prefer a focus on supports and services rather than a hyperfocus on trying to find a way to "prevent" people like us. I really doubt that the process of giving birth causes autism. Only people born by C-section would be "immune," in that case. And, there's probably a study that says C-sections cause autism....
At any rate, I expect much more professionalism from National Geographic. I'd like to think that most of the material I read from National Geographic is not as flawed as this, which comes off as more of an opinion piece than as factual.

Dorit Reiss
Dorit Reiss

 Here are some of the studies of vaccines and autism, arranged in several lists:

http://www.autismsciencefoundation.org/autismandvaccines.html


http://www.vaccinateyourbaby.org/safe/research.cfm#03http://www.vaccinateyourbaby.org/safe/research.cfm#02
See also this article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908388/
They were done throughout the world. By different teams. With different sources of funding. 
One comment on conflicts of interests - it's important to know about conflicts of interests. They make you examine studies more carefully for flaws and biases in interpreting the data. They can make a difference. that's why ethical researchers disclose them. But they don't make the data go away. You can't dismiss a study just because you don't like it's funding. You need to point out an actual problem with it. 
Vaccines save lives. They don't cause autism. Doing away with them will not mean less autism, just more children suffering and dying from diseases we can prevent. Bad all around. 

Haven DeLay
Haven DeLay

Just because age increases, it does not mean quality of life increases.  Today 1:5 Americans is "living with" Cancer, and your ilk would report that as a good thing.  It is NOT.  1:5 American children has a learning disability, and a 1:50 American children has "autism."  - only this is NOT classic autism and it only refers to the behaviors.  It does not recognize the COUNTLESS medical comorbidities these children are suffering. My son was damaged by vaccines in 2002.  By 2003 he was diagnosed at a major children's hospital with "Heavy Metal Intoxication."  The amount of mercury he received in total form birth as well as just the amount he received in the single day he regressed was tallied up and measured.  In that last day he received about 200 ties the EPA safe limit for mercury in a single day for a 200 lb male.  


Even when the neurologist diagnosed him, he quietly admitted the mercury had to have come from the vaccines.  He said, "Gee.. I thought they took that stuff out of vaccines.  I'm so sorry."  Then he of course went on to say that we had to be careful as the hospital received a lot of funding from the pharmaceutical industry, and they weren't going to bite the hand that feeds them.


My son had deranged mineral transport - so badly that his teeth were de-mineralizing.  Do you know the ONLY thing that causes deranged mineral transport in the human body? Mercury poisoning. And before anyone says "Oh they took that out." that is a lie.  All non-live virus vaccines are still manufactured using thimerosal and then they do an extraction process.  Getting thimerosal out and getting all the mercury out are two very different things.  And don't forget the added aluminum either.


Everything causes autism EXCEPT what REALLY causes autism.

sarah konas
sarah konas

What I find tragic about this article is its first sentence  "Autism is as mysterious a disease as it is tragic."  Susan Brink that statement shows just how little you have educated yourself on autism.  There are many adults with autism who have succeeded in life above and beyond what a "normal functioning" human has achieved.  Tragic is when you lose a love one not because someone has autism.  I can't believe National Geographic supports your statement. 

Haven DeLay
Haven DeLay

Infant mortality rates did not decrease int he US, Dorit.  The US is the highest vaccinating country in the world and the US has the HIGHEST infant mortality rate among all industrialized nations.

Haven DeLay
Haven DeLay

You can always count on the well paid Ms. Reis.  She has a volley for it all except that it has never happened to HER child.  All that matters is how much money the drug industry gave her university.  Every BODY (and soul) has its price, I suppose. Ms Reis has been asked several times to produce studies which prove her point which are not funded by  the  very industries that create these child destroying vaccines.  She simply repeats rhetoric.  Produce the independent studies Dorit.  while you are at it, I am still waiting for you to adequately answer the ten questions you called "infamous" - as if that means they don't need  to be answered.  They most definitely need to be answered.


Now they are pushing flu vaccines in pregnant mothers so that kids can be "born with it"  Further perpetuation of the worst crime against humanity in our history.  The vaccine manufacturers makes Aggie jokes look benign.  How many drug companies does it take to see they have destroyed the lives of now almost two generations of children?  Evidently, they don't have to so long as they can afford attorneys who employ the Racehorse Haynes defense: Deny, deny, deny.


Still, the truth is never going to die, and and more and more parents are wising up.

Not only do they want to identify it in utero, they of course want to make $$$$$ with a new drug they will tell parents can prevent it (but will undoubtedly cause numerous other medical problems just as all their drugs do..  Just more human experimentation without the consent of the governed.

L Pam
L Pam

Wait a minute.  I thought Dr Jenny McCarthy had done the groundbreaking clinical research demonstrating that vaccines caused Autism?  :-D

Maurine Meleck
Maurine Meleck

Are you listening writers, researchers and some commenters?  THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A GENETIC EPIDEMIC.  Move on...............

Maurine Meleck, SC

grandmother to 1 in 31(vaccine injured, encephalopathy and immune dysfunction)

Be Patienz
Be Patienz

Since you've commented on your web site about studies that ascertained the prevalence of ASD among adults, it's odd to see you repeat your claim that "No one has ever been able to show us a comparable rate among adults" since you certainly know that the prevalence of ASD among adults living in the community was roughly comparable to the prevalence of ASD among children--and that, since intellectual impairment is a common comorbidity and years ago intellectually impaired children were institutionalized, the overall prevalence of ASD among adults is higher still.

Similarly, you know that the sort of cases in which "a baby that was born healthy and is developing normally suddenly gets sick, loses learned skills and regresses into autism" with seizure disorders like the cases that you repeatedly reference to support your notion that vaccines are responsible for an epidemic of autism can be explained and have been explained: such cases have been repeatedly shown by independent groups of investigators to be due to pre-existing mutations, and not to the vaccines that were blamed. Neurons cultured from pluripotent stem cells from the skin of such allegedly “vaccine-injured” people are defective in ways that entirely explain the symptoms and contain mutations that cause similar syndromes in unvaccinated laboratory animals. Really, it just can’t get much clearer than this—the explanation is genetic—but, notably, many such cases are due to de novo mutations (such as those that arise in the father’s sperm) and are not carried by either parent.

Both genetic and environmental data point to early to mid gestation as the critical period for the development of ASD. Both rare and common genetic variations contribute to ASD risk; both inherited and spontaneous mutations play a role, and somatic mutation (e.g., preferential insertion of L1 sequences into synapse-related genes) early in prenatal development has been implicated by recent work. Environmental factors identified as drivers of ASD risk include maternal infection, preterm birth, advanced parental age, short inter-pregnancy interval, and prenatal exposure to air pollution, phthalates and pesticides. Vitamin intake, particularly folic acid, around the time of conception has been identified as a possible protective factor against ASD risk. If there has been a real increase in the incidence of ASD, the evidence points towards prenatal influences as the explanation.

Anne Dachel
Anne Dachel


Autism now affects one in every 88 or one in every 50 U.S. children (depending on which official rate from the CDC you care to believe). No one has ever been able to show us a comparable rate among adults--especially those with severe autism, whose symptoms are easily recognized.

The mysterious disorder with no known cause, prevention or cure continues to be the subject of endless research that couldn't possibly explain why a once rare disorder is now so common that everyone knows someone with an affected child.

And when a baby that was born healthy and is developing normally suddenly gets sick, loses learned skills and regresses into autism following routine vaccination, doctors can't explain it. The one thing they're sure of is that their ever-expanding vaccine schedule isn't to blame and they have lots of studies--all shown to have ties to the drug industry---to prove it.

NOW, we're told that the scientists are working to "identify autism in the uterus." It sounds like another effort to get vaccines off the hook.

Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

Dorit Reiss
Dorit Reiss

@Haven DeLay  

A. The question of whether vaccines cause autism has been examined again and again in multiple studies. There is no connection. Here are some lists.

B. As people live longer, more of them live to have cancer. 
c. The tiny amounts of ingredients in vaccines are not going to cause heavy metal poisoning. There is no thimerosal in today's vaccines. And autism is not mercury poisoning - the symptoms are different.  See: 

Thimerosal and Autism?

Karin B. Nelson and Margaret L. Bauman Pediatrics 2003;111;674
DOI: 10.1542/peds.111.3.674 


I'm sorry, but someone provided you wrong information. 

Dorit Reiss
Dorit Reiss

@Haven DeLay  Notice that third world countries may not have as good ways to diagnose it.


There is no connection between vaccines and autism. The question has been examined again, and again, and again, in multiple studies. 

Be Patienz
Be Patienz

@Haven DeLay

Well, it's always illuminating to encounter a real expert. Could you please explain, for the benefit of those of us who lack your erudition, how the various interpretations of infant mortality impact the reports of infant mortality rates among all industrialized nations? (I'm just asking because it seems that unless nations use uniform standards, your statement is meaningless.)

Thanks for that.

Dorit Reiss
Dorit Reiss

@Haven DeLay  I think you mean the nine questions. Here, again, is the blog post detailing the answers: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/nine-questions-nine-answers/


I am sorry you are under the impression - without ever showing that - that the many, many studies provided to you about vaccines and autism, showing no link, done all  over the world and with multiple sources of funding are all funded by pharmaceutical industries. That is incorrect. You may want to reexamine your sources. 

Be Patienz
Be Patienz

@Haven DeLay  

Isn't it fun to impugn the character of anyone who disagrees with you?  

My goodness, it must be clear that the only possible reason that Dorit Reiss might disagree with your nonsensical, anti-science opinions is because she is _paid_ do do so, rather than that she is pointing out that your opinions are nonsensical and anti-science.

Be Patienz
Be Patienz

@Maurine Meleck Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Vaccines Cause Autism" while grocery shopping doesn't really suggest that the wearer is an expert in, well, anything.

Be Patienz
Be Patienz

@Maurine Meleck  

If there has been an actual increase in the incidence of ASD, the evidence points towards prenatal influences as the explanation.

Of course, though, it’s not at all clear if there has been a true increase in the incidence ASD, but--as you know--clearly at least most of the apparent increase in prevalence is explained by just a handful of already-identified "environmental factors" (such as changing diagnostic criteria and increased awareness) which account for most of the perceived increase--in fact, one-fourth of the apparent increase in ASD is due to simply labeling as mentally impaired _and_ autistic children who years ago would have been diagnosed as only mentally impaired. Parents who are concerned that their child might not receive services if diagnosed under the new DSM-5 implicitly acknowledge that diagnostic criteria are a crucial factor in disease prevalence.

We've seen this before. Dr. Tom Insel, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health said: "We do not know how much of this increase reflects earlier under-diagnosis, current over-diagnosis, possibly a true increase in prevalence of this illness, or some combination of these factors. However, these new results confirm what we are hearing increasingly from families who tell us about disabling, sometimes dangerous psychiatric symptoms in their children." It happens, though, that Dr. Insel was NOT speaking about autism then, but about the "forty-fold increase in the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children and adolescents" that had occurred between the early 1990s and 2003. A decade ago, estimates of the prevalence of pediatric biopolar disorder, which previously had been very rarely diagnosed, suddenly increased to the point where it approximated or exceeded the current estimates of the prevalence of ASD: Harvard child psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Biederman, who helped popularize the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder, stated, “bipolar disorder is a serious illness that is estimated to affect approximately 1 percent to 4 percent of children." Does anyone believe that the actual percentage of the population affected by the disorder increased just because more children received the diagnosis?

Dorit Reiss
Dorit Reiss

@Anne Dachel  I'd like to see some evidence of your claims that all the many studies - and there are many - showing there is no connection between vaccines and autism - have ties to the drug industry. 

When numerous groups of scientists, in different countries, with different sources of funding, all find the same result - no link between vaccines and autism - at some point it's time to accept the result and stop spending money on a fruitless avenue.

This new study suggests a promising direction. Those that really want answers should be excited. 

Dorit Reiss
Dorit Reiss

@Anne Dachel  That's not quite accurate. At least one study suggested a similar rate in adults: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21536975. We do have adults coming out with autism or newly diagnosed


To remind you, we have excellent reasons to think the increase in rates is an increase in diagnosed rates, not an actual increase - due to changes in the definition of autism, changes in awareness and so forth.http://www.randi.org/.../1671-is-there-an-autism-epidemic....

If there was any increase, there are actually multiple studies examining it, and suggesting some answers. For example, we know pretty conclusively it's not due to vaccines, and that there are genetic factors behind autism. We know some causes, like prenatal rubella. Do we know all the causes of autism? No. But it's not that there's no knowledge at all.

Bill Williams
Bill Williams

@Dorit Reiss

 

Have you ever had a behaviorally-normal infant vaccinated only to have him suddenly change immediately afterwards?

I have.  In both my kid and others.  I've been in conference halls full of hundreds of other parents who have also experienced this.  I've heard government "officials" state that "we don't know, but we don't believe... " in one breath, and then see that this same government has established a "vaccine court" in another breath.  Now there are "studies" designed to specifically refute the reality of our collective experiences.

It's the vaccines.  It has to be.  There's no other common, widespread and obvious cause and effect variable.  What better way to quietly reduce our population?

My immediate reaction to Autism is that it is a level of social engineering at it's most frightening.  Could I be wrong?  Of course.  But I don't think I am.

Dorit Reiss
Dorit Reiss

@Bill Williams @Dorit Reiss  If vaccines are a way to reduce population, someone is doing a horrible job. Since the number of vaccines has grown, world population increased, average age of living increased, and infant mortality decreased. 


With millions of children vaccinated around the age parents noted symptoms of autism, some parents will notice them shortly after the vaccines. And they voiced their concerns. And efforts were undertaken to examine the question. Study after study - by many teams of researchers all around the world - found no link between vaccines and autism. Parents pointed out their experiences; scientists listened, and went and looked. No connection was found, in study after study, all over. 


You can believe in a grand conspiracy of scientists all over, from different institutions with different sources of funding, many of which are parents themselves. Or you can accept the simple fact that when study after study finds no link, it's not there to be found. 

Be Patienz
Be Patienz

OMG, how can you even imagine that vaccination is intended "to quietly reduce our population" might convince any sentient being that the rest of your post is grounded in reality?


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