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Autism Linked with Low Levels of Antioxidants

Breaking News - April 2005 - Week 2

(Apr 13, 2005)

Healthcare in  the News

-- Oxidative stress, a suspected contributor to many disease processes like heart disease and cancer, also plays a role in autism, say researchers at the Experimental Biology 2005 conference.

Picture of a young girl, smiling

Approximately 15 out of every 10,000 children born are diagnosed with autism. Autism is more prevalent in boys than girls, with four times as many boys affected than girls.

In a recent study, autistic children were found to have significantly lower levels of an antioxidant called glutathione and its metabolic precursors.

"Glutathione is the major antioxidant in cells important for detoxification and elimination of environmental toxins, and its active form is reduced in about 80 percent of the kids with autism," says Dr. S. Jill James, director of the biochemical genetics laboratory at Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute.

Free Radicals Can Damage Brain Cells

Reduced levels of antioxidants, such as glutathione, would increase the level of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress occurs when antioxidants are not able to clear the body of free radicals, which can damage cells in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, and immune system.

"[Our findings] suggest that these kids would be more sensitive to an environmental exposure and would be less likely to detox from heavy metals," says Dr. James, who is the study's lead author.

Exposure to heavy metals, such as the mercury preservative that was commonly used in children's vaccines until recently, has long been suspected as a trigger for autism in genetically susceptible children.

Most research, however, has failed to confirm this link, and in 2004, the Institute of Medicine issued a report stating that it did not believe that vaccines contributed to the development of autism.

Not everyone agreed with that conclusion, however. Laura Bono, chairwoman of the National Autism Association, and the parent of an autistic child, believes vaccines play some sort of role in the development of autism and says the new study's findings would seem to support a link.

"These are children that are more vulnerable, that don't quite detox the way the rest of us do," says Bono.

Dr. James did not look at the vaccine question for the current study. She says that autism is believed to have a genetic basis, but that it "takes an environmental trigger to bring out the genetics."

Definitive Low Levels of Glutathione

For this study, Dr. James and her colleagues compared blood samples of 90 autistic children to those of 45 children without the disorder, and found that the active form of glutathione was reduced by about 80 percent in children with autism. Dr. James also said the metabolic precursors of glutathione were reduced.

"If they have lower glutathione, they would reach a toxicity earlier than someone with higher levels," Dr. James notes. "But, it's not clear whether this is a cause or a consequence of autism," she adds.

Dr. James and her team also looked at changes that occur in several genes that could affect glutathione metabolism in blood samples from 233 autistic children, vs. 183 children without autism.

They found changes in three genes more often in the children with autism. Dr. James explains that these are common genes that do not cause autism, but they could contribute to the development of these metabolic abnormalities.

While this study is just a first step, she says, it would not be unreasonable for parents of autistic children to talk with their child's physician about giving them antioxidant supplements since these supplements are non-toxic.

Others are not so sure, however.

"This is an interesting study and worth some more follow-up, but for parents or clinicians, it's an item of note, not a call to action," says Dr. Craig Newschaffer, director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

"There are no leaps to be made about using antioxidants as a therapeutic agent," he notes.

Always consult your physician for more information.

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this Web site.

Autistic Disorder Defined

Autistic disorder (also called autism) is a neurological and developmental disorder that usually appears during the first three years of life.

A child with autism appears to live in his/her own world, showing little interest in others, and a lack of social awareness. The focus of an autistic child is a consistent routine and includes an interest in repeating odd and peculiar behaviors.

Autistic children often have problems in communication, avoid eye contact, and show limited attachment to others.

Autism can prevent a child from forming relationships with others (in part, due to an inability to interpret facial expressions or emotions).

A child with autism may resist cuddling, play alone, be resistant to change, and/or have delayed speech development.

Persons with autism tend to exhibit repeated body movements (such as flapping hands or rocking) and have unusual attachments to objects. However, many persons with autism excel consistently on certain mental tasks (counting, measuring, art, music, and memory).

The cause of autism is not known. Research suggests that autism is a genetic condition. It is believed that several genes are involved in the development of autism.

Research studies in autism have found a variety of abnormalities in the brain structure and chemicals in the brain; however, there have been no consistent findings. One theory is the possibility that autistic disorder is a behavioral syndrome that includes several distinct conditions.

However, parenting behaviors are not the cause or a contributing factor to the cause or causes of autism.

The following are the most common symptoms of autism:

  • does not socially interact well with others, including parents
  • shows a lack of interest in, or rejection of, physical contact. Parents describe autistic infants as "unaffectionate." Autistic infants and children are not comforted by physical contact.
  • avoids making eye contact with others, including parents
  • fails to develop friends or interact with other children
  • does not communicate well with others
  • is delayed or does not develop language
  • once language is developed, does not use language to communicate with others
  • has echolalia (repeats words or phrases repeatedly, like an echo)
  • demonstrates repetitive behaviors
  • has repetitive motor movements (such as rocking and hand or finger flapping)
  • is preoccupied, usually with lights, moving objects, or parts of objects
  • does not like noise
  • has rituals
  • requires routines

The symptoms of autism may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

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