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Question: Do you believe that environmental factors such as vaccines increase the autism rate?

Michael Wigler: Well, any genetic disorder is an interaction with the environment.  So, I don’t exclude environment.  I just don’t see yet any strong evidence for a particular environmental factor.  I think that one could do studies.  For example, one could go to third world countries and do a study and ask is the rate of autism there the same as it is in the developed countries.  No one has done a study, that I know of, of that type, but it certainly could be done.  That would answer that question. 

But certainly anything to have to do with the development of an organism has an environmental component to it, but you can only study that when there’s some evidence which enables you to isolate that environmental component.  I think the vaccine studies have been now largely discredited.  They took mercury out of the vaccines and the rates of autism didn’t change.  And now of the 12 authors of the original paper that got some people very excited, I think 11 of those 12 authors have now withdrawn their backing for that paper and the methods used in that paper are really in doubt.  

So, I don’t take it as there being any evidence that vaccines are such an environmental factor.  It’s unfortunate that at the age at which parents begin to recognize autism in their children often correlates with the age at which they receive vaccinations.  That’s an unfortunate thing. 

There is a portion of autism, probably the majority of autism that you can detect it very early once the child is... almost after the child is born.  Many parents of autistic children say they could tell very early on that there was something wrong with their child.  There are about a quarter of the cases of autism where it looks like the child, in the parents’ opinion, has been developing normally and then, to their mind, suddenly goes off course.  And I think at least five percent of cases, it’s been very well documented that actually, a child has begun to lose gains that they have made.  So, there is this component that’s very tragic when a parent feels relieved that they’ve gotten through, and I think every parent who has a child suffers through nightmares that, you know, hoping that their child will be healthy and they give birth to a healthy child and then at age two or three, the child suddenly stops developing.  That’s a tragedy of horrendous proportions, and it’s natural for the parents of such children to look around for the possible causes; something external. 

However, it should be borne in mind that our brains continuously are developing at that age, and it is well-known that there are genetic defects whose onsets can occur at almost any particular age.  For example, there is a class of disorders that are called Storage Disorders where the child develops normally, but because of the buildup of some compound due to the faulty metabolism of some essential thing that they eat every day, builds up to a point and then begins to poison the brain.  And in these cases, the child will develop normally up to a certain age, and then will often regress and sometimes will die.  So, the idea that you can’t have sudden onset of an illness when the child is two or three is just wrong. 

If there were a clear environmental signal, for example, sonograms, or too much television, or vaccinations, that would be something that one could study, but in the absence of evidence for that, you have to ask yourself, well what should we be looking for?  Should it be the plastic in bottles?  And I don’t think we can do that in our culture.  I don’t think we can look for these possible environmental insults.  There are just far too many.  But if you go to a place like Nepal, or Mongolia, or someplace whose environment is completely different, they don’t have television, they still have grandmothers raising the children, they don’t get sonograms.  You could begin to tease out and do what epidemiologists do.  They go and do cultural comparisons.  So, for example, cultural comparisons have told us the incidences of breast cancer in Japan is one-third the rate of the incidences of breast cancer in America, and when Japanese women grow up in America, their rate of breast cancer is the same is American women.  Okay.  You can say, the environment possibly including culture in some way, because the rate, or the age on which you undergo puberty is relevant to breast cancer.  Has a study like that been done for autism?  No.  That’s where you would start.  And none of that’s been done as far as I know.

Recorded April 12, 2010

More from the Big Idea for Friday, May 28 2010


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