Autism is a poorly-understood condition characterized by problems with social interaction and communication. It is clearly a complex neurological issue, and its symptoms range from quite mild to very severe. As a result, neurologists tend to use the term “autism spectrum disorders” (ASDs), as they suspect autism is made up of a group of disorders with similar features.
I have a good friend with Asperger Syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder. While he seems mostly like any other person, he has some obsessive, repetitive rituals, and he sometimes experiences great difficulty in communicating with people, especially those who are unfamiliar with his personality. On the other side of the spectrum, a couple I know fairly well has a son with severe autism. It is difficult for them to communicate with him. It is as if he lives in his own little world. Additionally, he often experiences “meltdowns” in which he slams himself against the ground or the wall and screams at the top of his lungs. His behavior is not the result of “bad parenting.” It is the result of a serious neurological disorder.
What is frustrating for both health-care providers and parents is that so far, medical science has little to offer in terms of explaining what causes autism. In addition, while there are behavioral therapies that have helped many people with ASDs, it is difficult to prescribe a specific therapy for a specific individual. This, of course, leaves doctors and parents rather frustrated.
While there is a lot we don’t know about ASDs, there are things we do know. We know that they are on the rise. Even though there are many different ways to define ASDs, which leads to many different specific numbers, a good overview can be found here. Based on their numbers for the U.S. and outlying areas, for example, ASDs among people age 6-22 have increased 18-fold since 1992!
What are the causes of ASDs? The answer is that we don’t know. However, medical scientists are at least closing in on them.
A recent issue of Science has a very interesting article on blood platelets.1 As nearly any textbook that discusses human anatomy and physiology will tell you, there are three main types of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. As indicated by the scanning electron microscope image above, platelets are the smallest of the three.
In addition, almost any textbook that discusses human anatomy and physiology will tell you that each blood cell is principally involved in one area of your body’s maintenance. Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen to the tissues, although to a certain extent, they also pick up carbon dioxide waste from the tissues. White blood cells are responsible for cleaning the tissues of debris and fighting off invaders. Blood platelets are involved in clotting the blood so that we don’t bleed to death from a small cut.
Interestingly enough, this article indicates that blood platelets do a lot more than what most textbooks tell you!
The smartest person with whom I have ever worked sent me a very interesting article from Science Daily. She and I wrote several articles related to the science behind vaccination years ago, and this article is relevant to that issue. It reports on a study published in BMC Immunology, an open-access journal. The results of the study are worth noting.
The researchers studied peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) and how susceptible they were to infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. PBMC is the name given to any blood cell that has a round nucleus. Since red blood cells don’t have a nucleus, what this means is that the researchers were looking at certain white blood cells, which are a part of the body’s immune system. Obviously, the susceptibility of white blood cells to HIV is an important issue in the study of AIDS.
Here is the key: they looked at the PBMCs from 10 volunteers who had never been vaccinated against smallpox as well as the PBMCs from 10 volunteers who had been vaccinated against smallpox with a Vaccinia-based vaccine 3 to 6 months prior to the study. Vaccinia is a virus in the poxvirus family that is typically used to produce the immune response to protect against smallpox. Guess what they found.
A very interesting study was published in the April 9, 2010 issue of Science.1 In this study, Matam Vijay-Kumar and colleagues experimented with mice, trying to find out how their immune systems interacted with their body weight. Scientists have known for a while that obesity and the immune system are related, but most scientists have thought that obesity causes immune system disorders.2 That might, indeed, be true. However, this study shows that, most likely, immune system disorders can also cause obesity!
Mice (and most vertebrates, including people) have two levels of immunity: innate immunity and adaptive immunity. Innate immunity refers to the mechanisms in the body that protect against general threats. Adaptive immunity refers to the mechanisms in the body that protect against specific threats. So the mechanisms in the body that fight against all bacterial infections are a part of the body’s innate immunity, but when the immune system is attacking a specific species of bacterium, the adaptive immune system is at work.
Matam Vijay-Kumar and colleagues investigated a very specific part of the innate immune system and its effects on obesity in mice. The results were quite surprising.
I am a bit behind in my reading, so just today I saw an incredible article in the February 27th issue of Science News. The article, entitled “From Skin Cells to neurons, with no middle man,” discussed some astonishing experiments in which mouse skin cells were turned directly into neurons.1
Researchers at Stanford University took skin fibroblast cells (cells that make a protein called collagen) from a mouse and used a virus to insert genes that encode certain transcription factors. These transcription factors are proteins that actually help to regulate gene activity. In other words, their job is to turn genes on and off. The idea here is that even though skin cells are specialized, they have the same DNA that any other non-reproductive cells have. Thus, if we could “turn on” the right genes and “turn off” other genes, we could turn one type of cell into another type of cell.
So…the researchers inserted genes for three transcription factors that are present when neurons are just starting to form. It is assumed that these transcription factors activate the genes necessary for a stem cell to become a neuron, and they deactivate the genes that a neuron doesn’t need. The researchers thought that if they forced those transcription factors to appear in a skin cell, the transcription factors would turn on and off the right genes to make the skin cell turn into a neuron. They were right.
I am currently doing an Alaskan tour of six cities in seven days, working with educators in a state-wide, publicly-funded charter school system. Even though it is cold, it is a lot of fun. Alaska is beautiful, and the charter school system is excellent. It is great to see quality education occurring in such a novel way.
Because airplanes are the main way one gets from city to city in Alaska, I have been spending a lot of time sitting in airports, on tarmacs, and occasionally on an airplane that is actually flying. As a result, I have been doing a lot of reading. I came across an interesting article in ScienceScience News today1, and I think it is a great illustration of something I stress in most of my science books.
For several years now, scientists have been using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe functioning brains. The main technique involves using a magnetic resonance imaging machine to look for small changes that occur within the blood vessels of a person’s brain. The very reasonable argument proposed is that the more active a neuron is, the more blood it needs. Thus, if the fMRI sees an increase in blood flow to a particular region of the brain, the neurons in that region must be more active. So…a subject is stimulated in some way, and the fMRI looks for increases in blood flow. Any region of the brain that “lights up” must be the region that is responsible for either processing whatever stimulus was provided or producing a response to it.
Several hundred papers have been published discussing the results of all manner of fMRI experiments, and they have made all sorts of definitive conclusions regarding what regions of the brain are responsible for processing various stimuli or producing various responses to those stimuli. Well, Craig Bennett wanted to see how reliable fMRI experiments are, so he decided to do a very simple baseline test. He used fMRI to study the way a dead fish’s brain responds to stimuli.
Many well-meaning individuals really think that vaccines are bad for you. These people are predisposed to distrust the government (as am I), and they have been (incorrectly) taught that the government is manipulating the scientific data to make vaccines seem more effective or safer than they actually are. Of course, anyone who understands how scientific research is done and the processes by which it gets published knows that such nonsense isn’t true. However, most people are mystified by the scientific process, so these kinds of “conspiracy theories” sound believable.
In an attempt to help people from being misled about vaccines, I have decided to gather together what I consider the most relevant information related to the scientific research regarding vaccines. If you are interesting in learning the REAL FACTS regarding vaccines, you will read through what is posted here. Please understand, however, that you must have the courage to actually face the facts. If you have been deceived by the lies of the anti-vaccination movement, you might be upset by what you read. I do pray that you have the fortitude to proceed, however, as your children’s lives might depend on it. Make no mistake, the facts are crystal clear: children and adults die or are permanently injured because of the lies of the anti-vaccination movement. If you care about your children and your loved ones, you will carefully investigate this issue.