Autism: Can Computational Biology and Environmental Health Finally Provide Answers?


The Increasing Rate of Autism in America

When I first studied psychology as an undergraduate student, the rate of autism in the United States was one in 10,000. Today it is about one in 55. And while some suspected that the rise in autism was due to changes in diagnostic standards, new findings point to the increases in environmental toxins for the increase in autism. This was a significant finding, as many in the medical and psychology fields had been watching the increasing numbers of autism diagnosis with more than a little concern. While the exact cause or causes of autism are still not known, significant progress is being made to understand how the environment, particularly toxins, have significant impact on fetal neurodevelopment

Computational Biology

Even those familiar with biology and biochemistry may not be well versed in computational biology. This is because computational biology is less retrospective, and more prospective in nature. Computational biology looks at the application of data analysis and theoretical modeling to understand biology, behavior, and complex social systems, in order to better understand and prediction the interplay among the psychological, the physiological, and the social. Beyond this, computational biology also involves the use of computer modeling, applied mathematics, biostatistics, biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, ecology, neuroscience, anatomy, and physiology. This bringing together of such diverse specialities allows researchers to create a more complete picture of diseases and conditions in hopes of better understanding cause, prevention, and treatment.


If you are a regular reader of my medical blog, you know that epidemiology is the study of how diseases or conditions impact a larger population, and Clinical Epidemiology has many similarities to computational biology, particularly in regards to predictive modeling and ascertaining direct and indirect impacts to the community. When combined with Environmental Health Science, this approach can bring new insight into how our health is impacted, how healthcare can be altered to include the ecological aspects, and how diagnosis can be modified to include impacts from the environment. One such insight is a novel way of looking at destructive neurodevelopment impacts associated with the environment.

Each year, over 300,000 newborns die within the first month of life due to complications from congenital anomalies according to the World Health Organization. Many who survive are faced with long-term disabilities that significantly impact their families, causing significant disruption in healthcare systems and the society. The World Health Organization suggest that, although some congenital abnormalities are the result of genetics, infections, or poor maternal nutrition, environmental toxins play a significant part.

Recent Studies

In a study from the University of Chicago, researchers found that autism and intellectual disability rates were positively associated to harmful environmental factors during congenital development. The researchers found significant correlations between the rate of congenital malformations of male genitalia, the rate of autism, and exposure to environmental toxins, particularly those comprised of micro molecules (those molecules small enough to pass through the placental barrier). These included some plastics, some prescription drugs, pesticides, and other manufactured chemicals, commonly referred to a teratogens (meaning an agent that causes malformation of an embryo), a word that first appeared in the medical literature about 1951. In essence, the introduction of these micro molecules or teratogens alters or damage fetal development during vulnerable periods.

The University of Chicago researchers gathered data from over a third of the population of the United States, finding that fetuses, particularly males, were highly sensitive to toxins in the environment, including lead, petrochemical prescription medications, pesticides, mercury, and a host of other man-made synthetics. This is not the first time researcher suspected a link between autism and the environment. In 2009, The University of California Davis department of public health sciences reviewed 17 years of state data that tracked developmental disabilities, finding the increase in autism rates corresponded with the increase of environmental toxins.

Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine compared brain autopsies of autistic children who had died from unrelated causes to those of normal brains. The brains of autistic children revealed abnormal patches of disorganized neurons that disrupted the usual distinct layers that make up the brain’s cortex. Research suggests that these abnormalities occurred in utero during critical developmental stages (between 18 and 31 weeks).

Life in a Disposable Society

As a disposable society, we have not always been concerned about where our trash went, provided it went somewhere out of sight. As a child, I recall going to the “Dump” with my father and watching people burning trash, tires, anything that could be burned. As a result, all of that trash, burned or otherwise, the refuse of the past 75 years or so has become part of our environment, and as a result, our ecology contains some chemicals that impact the neural development of all animals that come into contact with them. They include Mercury, lead, bromide, pesticides, and herbicides.

A Toxic Soup

Today we include the built environment in human ecology, and the list of toxins has increased significantly. While the rates of autism have remained steady in Europe, where Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) are banned, along with the pesticides used with them. In fact, the rates of neurodevelopment disorders seem to remain stead in the Europe Union, Australia, Japan, and in total some 60 nations have outlawed or significantly reduced GMO crops, or have banned any use of GMO’s altogether. Meanwhile in the US, government agencies continue to approve the use of these chemicals at great concentrations, completely discounting their connection to health ailments. Today, a chemical outlawed in the EU and dozens of other nations, Glyphosate, (the active ingredient in herbicides) is routinely used on food crops and livestock feed.

While environmental regulators should be aware of the number of birth defects caused by Glyphosate, only those agencies in the European Union, Japan, and Australia have completely outlawed their use. Despite established research showing these chemicals cross the placental barrier injuring fetal development, they are still widly used in the US.

According to a study in Reproductive Toxicology, pesticides associated with GMO foods were found in maternal and fetal blood, and later tests revealed these same pesticides in the blood samples from other women as well, along with the presence of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria toxin manufactured by several chemical makers. The people living in the United States continue to be inundated with toxic chemicals, and one study, examined 160 toxic chemicals, found that almost all women tested positive for 43 of them.

Finally, A study by the U.S. Geological Survey titled Pesticides in Mississippi Air and Rain: A Comparison Between 1995 and 2007, found Glyphosate and its byproduct AMPA (α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid), a compound that mimics the effects of the neurotransmitter glutamate, was found in over 75% of the air and rain samples taken from Mississippi in 2007.

And you are worried about vaccines?

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