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Autism: There's more of it, not just better detection

Friday, January 9, 2009

autism awareness.jpg
Special to Enviroblog by Sonya Lunder, EWG Senior Researcher

A study published earlier this week confirmed what parents of children with autism have argued for years--that the dramatic increase in autism cases is not solely based on better diagnosis at earlier ages. The study, performed by researchers at the U.C. Davis Medical Investigation of Neurological Disorders Institute (known as The M.I.N.D. Institute) confirms and expands earlier publications, finding increasing rates of autism in California children throughout the 1990s.

The study authors call for increased funding and research into the environmental causes of this disease, a call we wholeheartedly support. Author Irva Hertz-Piccoto claims that 10 to 20 times more money is devoted to researching genetic rather than environmental causes.

But while genes play some role in autism, genetics alone can't explain the rapid increase in new diagnoses. Investigating environmental factors could identify exposures that put kids at risk, thereby enabling parents and parents-to-be to proactively prevent relevant exposures.

Many gene and environmental exposures have been hypothesized to be linked to autism. Most convincing to us is the theory that a host of genetic vulnerabilities lead autistic children to have impaired methylation systems and increased oxidative stress. Since many environmental contaminants provoke oxidative stress, including air pollutants, pesticides, heavy metals and food additives, autistic children may be at greater risk to everyday exposures to pollution.

There are so many unanswered questions about autism, but (un)fortunately we can now put this one question to rest. I don't know what will come next in this saga, but encourage you to look for more great research out of U.C.Davis' M.I.N.D. Institute in the future. We think they're on the right track.