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Ask Dr. Mike: What Are the Newest Theories on Autism?

Here you'll find the answers to a wealth of health and wellness questions posed by Healthy Talk fans. Listen in because what you know helps ensure healthy choices you can live with. Today on Healthy Talk, you wanted to know:

With April being National Autism Month, are there any new theories on Autism?

Life Extension has hundreds of protocols that are constantly updated. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neuro-developmental disorder that is characterized by repetitive behavior, difficulty in social situations, trouble communicating verbally and non-verbally, and motor coordination.

One of the new theories is about inflammation, which occurs when the baby is still being developed inside your womb. Several researchers are looking at the certain effects of inflammatory proteins, one in particular, NF-kB. When that is high in the mom, it does cross into the developing embryo and has been shown to increase the risk of autism.

Another theory suggests genetics could play a role in developing autism as well. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at 25 genes (some associated with autism, and some that were not) of brain tissue in deceased children with or without autism. Researchers found that the brains of deceased children that were autistic were missing key genetic markers across multiple layers of brain cells.

A third theory suggest that women who have autoimmune diseases have a higher risk of having a child with autism. Studies have shown that women with autoimmune diseases are more likely to produce a kind of antibody that attacks the brain of the developing fetus.

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RadioMD Presents:Healthy Talk | Original Air Date: April 10, 2015
Host: Michael Smith, MD

RadioMD. It's time to ask Dr. Mike. Do you have a question about your health? Dr. Mike can answer your questions. Just email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call now: 877-711-5211. The lines are open.

DR. MIKE: That's This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . I could use more questions, so send me whatever you want to talk about. It can be an idea you have. It can be a question about drugs, disease, acupuncture. As I said, I have a whole staff of health advisors at Life Extension that help me answer questions, so send them. Send them my way.

So, this question comes from Diane: "With April being National Autism Month, are there any new theories of autism? Thanks for your show. Diane."

So, when I get questions like this, to me this is kind of like an update kind of question about a disease or a condition and so I've got tell you, I'm not just saying this because I'm the Senior Health Scientist for Life Extension. You know, we have over 140 some odd protocols that are updated with this kind of information. So, I went to and went to their "Autism Protocol" so the first thing that I want to mention, it is National Autism Month and I encourage you to go check out, I think, oh shoot. I didn't write the website down. I think it's the, but just Google it. There are just different ways you can help in terms of helping to raise money and awareness. So, go check out some of those sites.

Back to the question that Diane has: "What are some of the new theories?" Well, I think the first one is inflammation and, specifically, inflammation that happens in utero, when the embryo is developing. There are, you know, some studies that are looking at the effects of certain inflammatory proteins and one, in particular, NF-kappa beta. When that is high in the mom, for a variety of reasons, maybe even autoimmune disorders, chronic infections, whatever, when NF-kappa beta is high, it does cross into the placenta, into the developing embryo, and that has been shown to increase the risk of autism, so, again, why and how? The specifics is still not worked out, but more and more researchers are looking at in utero inflammation. Inflammatory mediators passing from mom to embryo. That seems to be a current theory. Another theory would be the genetics. Wait. I'm sorry. Let me back up. I missed this. Again, this comes from the Life Extension protocol. This is about the inflammation again. I wanted to read this.

A study published last year, so, this protocol that Life Extension was updated at the end of 2014, so this is a study published in 2013. So, a study published in 2013 followed 1.2 million pregnant women in Finland and measured the expectant mothers' levels of c-reactive protein, one of those inflammatory mediators. You know, the higher the level, it's an indication that there's some inflammation. Researchers found a 43% increased risk in children of mothers with the highest levels of c-reactive protein."

So, that's, again cause/effect? No. Association? Yes. So, there's an inflammatory component, an inflammatory association with the risk of developing autism. AF-kappa beta, in this case, c-reactive protein. There are several other inflammatory proteins that could be involved. So, the question becomes, "What's going on?" I mean, how, number one, we need to be managing inflammation in moms. That's right there. Is it the pregnancy in some women that causes higher inflammation? Is it smoldering, chronic infections that haven't been diagnosed? Do we need to be working that up in pregnant women initially? I mean, does that need to be part of the normal work up now? So, these are all questions now that are coming out from some of these studies.

So, inflammation is, I think, probably the leading theory right now. Now, there's also a genetic component. A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed the brain tissue of children with autism. This was done by scientists from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington. They looked at 25 genes in the brain tissue of deceased children with and without autism, including genes that have been linked to autism as well as several control genes. So, they took children that died, with and without autism, and they identified, or they looked at 25 different genes. Some of them associated with autism, some of them not associated with autism. Those are the control genes. Researchers found that the brains of autistic children were missing key genetic markers across multiple layers of brain cells. This was the first study to actually look at the brains of children because, until it was done, scientists had only ever studied the brain tissue of adults with autism and sought to figure out what may have occurred developmentally when the patient was diagnosed as a child.

So now, this is the first study really looking at the brains of kids, identifying certain genetic defects. Now, we've got to go back, map those genetic defects and maybe we can start developing some genetic markers for autism. So, here you have inflammation on one hand, and potentially some genetic markers on the other.

The third one, and this theory may be more associated with the inflammatory theory that I already talked about, but it has to do with autoimmune disorders in the mom. Studies have also shown that women with autoimmune diseases are more likely to produce a kind of antibody that attacks the brain of the developing fetus. So, again, I don't know...I didn't look into what that antibody was, what type of autoimmune disorder, so those are all questions. Maybe we can go back to Life Extension and see if there was some more there. But, again, moms with autoimmune disorders apparently make certain auto antibodies—that's what we call them. They do cross into the developing embryo and can cause some brain damage in the developing fetus.

Why? But, it brings up the question, though. What's driving all of this? So, here you have an inflammatory theory, okay? A really nice Finland study. 1.2 million women looking at CRP in women that had high levels of CRP, and had an increased risk of having a kid with autism. I mean, that's well-established. There's studies with NF-kappa beta and other inflammatory markers. You have this genetic analysis going on and you've got this link to this auto antibody. Again, it brings up the question, though.

Well, why now? Why are we seeing such a sharp rise in autism? And, I do think it is reasonable to believe that on one level, maybe 20-30 years ago, we didn't recognize autism and the spectrum of autistic disorders. I know when I was in medical school, we didn't appreciate all of that. That was just, you know, gosh, almost 20 years ago. I mean, 20 years ago, we didn't have an appreciation for the spectrum of autistic symptoms and disorders. We didn't learn that. So, one hand, we are recognizing it better which may be driving some of the increased diagnosis, but when you factor that out, there's a definite increase in autism and we have this inflammatory theory; this genetic theory; this autoimmune theory. What's driving all of this?

Well, a lot of doctors really think that we need to think of the chemical toxins in our environment that is that overarching umbrella that's driving the inflammation; driving some of these autoantibodies; driving some of these genetic abnormalities and we need some more transparency and understanding of what chemicals are out there; what dangers they may or may not pose. We just don't have that kind of information and it's time that I think we do. So, there you go.

This is Health Talk on RadioMD. I'm Dr. Mike. Stay well.