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Autism: where are we heading?

The prevalence of autism is growing too quickly for it to be a genetic disorder. Instead, autism is probably caused by exposure of the fetus to harmful substances. [article computer-translated from the French]

The causes of autism are to be found before birth but not due to genetic factors. Instead, the mother’s exposure to certain chemicals may explain the disorder in the child. Antidote Europe had already shown that substances that are very widespread in our environment could affect the developing fetal nervous system.

Autism is a disorder of neural development that can start from the first weeks after conception. The very young child affected with this disorder presents, to varying degrees, a number of disadvantages: unable to communicate, thus unable to express his needs or desires, he hides his feelings but can also suddenly show his emotions. He is unable to participate in social life and resists any change around him. He retreats into a virtual fortress. These problems manifest themselves in the early years of the child’s life, usually before the age of three to five years. They are related to a defective processing of information by the brain, probably due to poor organization of neuronal cells and their interconnections at the time of establishment of the central nervous system during embryogenesis.

These disorders — it is not a disease — are permanent; at the present state of our knowledge, there is no treatment. They may be more or less pronounced and are grouped in a “spectrum” of autistic disorder, with three dominant, depending on whether the child has a severe mental problem (40% of cases), moderate (30% of cases) or is unaffected in his cognitive development (30% of cases). Indeed, some are even gifted with superior intelligence (among them quite a few great scientists).

Genetic or environmental causes?

Since among the autistic there are four times as many boys than girls, it was long thought that genetic factors are involved, but these would be complex because autism is not hereditary. Another assumption was made when we developed reliable methods of diagnosis in the 1980s. Although actual figures in France are difficult to obtain, it was found that the prevalence [1] of autism was progressing extremely fast: out of every 10,000 people, there were less than 5 cases in the 1970s, 16 in the 1990’s, 23 in 2003 (but only 5 on the website of the Ministry of Health and 50 according to the WHO!) and 60 in 2009.

Note that in Anglo Saxon countries the figures are even more catastrophic. The US government agency CDC (Center for Disease Control in Atlanta) published in late December 2009 that the prevalence of the “spectrum” measured in 2006 in the United States among children born in 1998, an 8-year 110 (a boy of 70, a daughter of 315), nearly half have significant intellectual disabilities. These figures are up 57% over 2002 (+60% for boys, 48% for girls). For 2009, estimates show 94 autistic children in the United States, even one in 66 in United Kingdom. Assuming that the prevalence continues to rise unabated, one could extrapolate these figures to know when 100% of boys age 8, and 100% of girls aged 8 years will be autistic. The “Brave New World” is in sight!

In France, the increasing reliability of the diagnosis of those affected by one or another component of the “Spectrum” has certainly contributed to the upward spiral in the prevalence of autism, but this spiral requires considering the hypothesis of the responsibility of environmental factors alongside or in place of the genetic hypothesis. It was unthinkable that the human gene pool is changing at such a rate that would explain the increasing prevalence of autism by a factor of 12 in 30 years. This explosion is also exonerated the conscious responsibility of the mother of an autistic child, a bald assertion devoid of any serious and scientific, yet common among “specialists” of the disease there are still ten years. The term “responsibility of the mother” does not exclude its role in disease involuntary because the autistic disorder usually starts during development in utero of autism. This would be the environment of the mother during her pregnancy that could be involved, whether it absorbs chemicals (drink), to breathe (air pollution, solvents, gases laden exhaust from (nano?) particles, smoke from factories …) or it applies to the skin (cosmetics).

Unmask the harmful substances

How to identify a chemical autistogène? Testing on animal models is obviously to be excluded, not only because no species is a reliable biological model for another, as our readers have long known, but it is unclear how to identify an autistic mouse (“the adventures of an autistic mouse”, a theme that should inspire cartoonists…). Nor do we see any human volunteers (ie, fetuses during pregnancy or babies under 2 years) agreeing to be exposed to chemicals that can cause a form of autism. What remains is tests on biological samples of human origin, first on neuron cells.

We are thus naturally led to evaluate these substances by toxicogenomics — precisely what Antidote Europe said 6 years ago. We selected for this purpose neuronal cells cultured SH-SY5Y, and deregulation of gene expression in these cells when exposed to chemicals. We had in mind the problem of autism, and in this context, we were particularly interested in a family of eight gene markers of neurotoxicity, three (ROBO1, HOXD1, THBS) are essential in the architecture neurons in the fetus and young child, three (ACHE, DRD2, TH) in neuronal communication, one (CTSB) in the development of amyloidosis (originally from neurodegenerative diseases), one finally (BZRP) involved in initiation of the synthesis of steroid hormones (to explore the reasons for the significant difference between boys and girls to the risk of autism). Results: Most of these genes are severely deregulated by, among others, bisphenol A (2), acrylamide, 2-butoxyethanol (solvent used in cosmetics), 3-aminophenol (hair coloring) and a series of pesticides. If we could afford to repeat these tests today, we will select a much larger number of relevant marker genes, a larger number of human neuronal cell lines, large sets of exposure times and concentrations of substances. Genomic techniques today allow for the same price not to examine 30 substances as in 2004, but hundreds and their mixtures (still a possibility offered by toxicogenomics [3]), present in the body of the mother — and thus the fetus.

Unfortunately, we lack the necessary resources. They represent only a small part of what has been wasted in vain for the supposed “pandemic” of influenza A (H1N1), which had denounced beforehand the largely exaggerated in an interview on radio here and now. We would like the authorities to apply the same rigor with the precautionary principle in the prevention of autism to identify and eliminate our environmental substances that are responsible. That deserves an Autism Plan at least as urgent as plans Alzheimer’s or Cancer, for it applies to future generations.


(1) Prevalence: number of cases of sick people existing or arising in a defined population, without distinction between new cases and old cases.

(2) See  Bisph.enol A is used in the manufacture of bottles “unbreakable” stamped “7” or “PC” and is found in plastic jars for baby food.

(3) See the article “The real effects of the cocktails” in the March 2001 edition of The Antidote Record.

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