Thursday, 26 April 2012

Top 10 environmental pollutants and autism

I did promise in a recent post on rich/poor kids, older mums/dads and autism, that I would pass comment on the editorial by Landrigan and colleagues* (full-text) published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. I couldn't let this paper go by without some reference given that it provides quite a bit of background as to where autism research should be looking if we are to assume that certain aspects of the environment might play a role in symptom onset in at least some cases of autism and perhaps other related conditions.

Indeed there are several other papers in the same journal which might also be relevant to this post, including:


I have to say that I don't have the time, energy or expertise to go through each and every one of these papers but would instead refer to quite a nice summary here on two of the papers and invite any comments from those that did read them. Please also consider this entry as a sort of continuation of my interest in pesticide exposure and health as per this and this post.

There are a few things to note about the Landrigan commentary including:

  • Acceptance that autism is a family of conditions of which the authors suggest that about 30-40% of cases might be attributable to genetic inheritance.
  • An estimated 3% of all neurobehavioural conditions are "caused directly by toxic environmental exposures" and some 25% caused by interactions between environmental factors and inherited susceptibilities.
  • There is accumulating 'proof of principle' evidence for some role for environmental factors in cases of autism. 
  • Added to what is already known about the neurological and developmental effects of some of these environmental agents combined with the growth and growth in areas such as epigenetics, there are some pieces of the research puzzle which seem to overlap with evidence from autism research.
  • A workshop titled 'Exploring the Environmental Causes of Autism and Learning Disabilities' generated a list of 10 chemicals widely persistent in the environment which might cause developmental neurotoxicity. These were: LeadMethylmercury, Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Organophosphate (OP) pesticides, Organochlorine (OC) pesticides, Endocrine disruptors, Automotive exhaust, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), Brominated flame retardantsPerfluorinated compounds. The chemicals with links will take you to previous posts on this blog which have covered the compound in question; some with autism in mind, others with a more peripheral connection.

I'm sure you will agree that there are quite a few very bold statements included in this editorial not least the top 10 chemical targets for further research. I imagine that there will be some discussions on the rights and wrongs of naming and shaming the potential chemical offenders as time goes on.

The good news about these chemicals / compounds is that with the technology available these days, all are perfectly testable, and can be analysed in various biological fluids. One would therefore imagine that designing a large enough study covering people with autism, their parents, even siblings and appropriate comparators, controlling for comorbidity, even incorporating some degree of 'endophenotype' research and genetic / epigenetic elements is a perfectly feasible way of testing one or more of the '10 chemical hypotheses'.

Assuming some connection is confirmed and bearing in mind the complexity of cause-and-effect, the next question might be 'what can we do about it'? Minimising contact with these agents, particularly during conception and pregnancy and into early childhood, utilising the various ways and means available to remove these chemicals from the body - yes, even using that dreaded biomedical 'mumbo-jumbo' word detox - and assessing outcome both behavioural and biochemical (see here). Who knows perhaps even looking at the various detoxification mechanisms such as glutathione and its relations which have ascended up the evidence ranks quite recently to note any possible association.

Stop already with the speculation, I hear you cry. And I will.

To finish, do you feel compelled to walk like an Egyptian?

* Landrigan P. et al. A research strategy to discover the environmental causes of autism and neurodevelopmental disabilities. Environmental Health Perspectives. April 2012
DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1104285

** Sheldon JF. et al. Tipping the balance of autism risk: potential mechanisms linking pesticides and autism. Environmental Health Perspectives. April 2012
DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1104553

*** Kalkbrenner AE. et al. Maternal smoking during pregnancy and the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders using data from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. Environmental Health Perspectives. April 2012
DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1104556

**** Wayman GA. et al. PCB 95 promotes dendritic growth via ryanodine receptor-dependent mechanisms. Environmental Health Perspectives. April 2012
DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1104832

***** Wayman GA. et al. PCB 95 modulates calcium-dependent signaling pathway responsible for activity-dependent dendritic growth. Environmental Health Perspectives. April 2012
DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1104833