The United Kingdom’s prestigious medical journal BMJ last week released what appears to be damning evidence about a 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and colleagues in which they saw an association with a childhood vaccination and onset of autism in eight previously normal children.
BMJ is expected to publish more articles on the issue, including material on Dr. Wakefield’s purported “business interests and the extraordinary sums of money he intended to make from his own vaccine, from diagnostic kits, and from all kinds of other weird products he was going to sell off the back of his scare,” journalist and BMJ article author Brian Deer told CNN host Anderson Cooper last week.
No doubt, parents and others who think a vaccine can lead to autism will not be swayed by the BMJ articles. It is just too hard not to believe that a specific event, such as getting a complex vaccine, changed a child from normal to not normal within days, weeks or months.
But perhaps there are more productive lines of thought that can give comfort to parents, especially if the vaccine theory proves unsustainable.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) rates have been climbing in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) once thought prevalence was about one child in 150. In 2009, CDC revised that to a shocking one child in 110.
Setting vaccines aside, what else could be causing autism? What treatments can be offered when a child starts displaying the telltale signs of social withdrawal, verbal loss and strange behaviors?
The answers to these questions will be found in numbers - and numbers already are pouring into a new database designed to assist ASD researchers in their quest for answers.
Since 2008, the National Database for Autism Research (NDAR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has collected ASD studies, large and small, Michael F. Huerta, associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told me recently.
NDAR staff carefully break down each study’s contents and define and standardize its data before adding it to NDAR, he said.
In December, researchers were given first crack at NDAR data, which involved about 10,000 people, and before long, they also should have access to five major repositories of autism data.
Researchers can “reaggregate the data” from these data sets, and this, “we think, will bring a new power to investigators,” Mr. Huerta said.
The NDAR model is so exciting that when Mr. Huerta, a 20-year veteran at NIH, tells others about it, “they want to clone it, use it, put their data in there.”
“It is really something whose time has come,” he said.
What might be included in the studies collected by NDAR? According to Geri Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism science and advocacy organization, promising research is looking at:
• Early exposure to air pollutants, viruses, chemicals and other environmental elements.
• Parental autoimmune disease, such as diabetes and rheumatic fever.
• Premature births.
• “Increased levels of cytokines,” or small molecules secreted by the immune system, in children with ASD.
• “Autism risk” genes.
Promising treatments include “early enrichment” for young children; “inhaling” the hormone oxytocin; a new “friendship” social training program for children; a treatment for brain neurons using the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells; melatonin treatments to encourage good sleep habits; and treatments aimed at correcting mitochondrial dysfunction in the cells, Ms. Dawson wrote in her year-in-review report.
I mention these things not because I understand them, but because they surely show the depth and breadth of the scientific hunt to vanquish this terrible illness.
I am also heartened by Ms. Dawson’s words and hope anyone distressed by the BMJ articles will be, too: After decades working in the field of autism as a scientist and clinician, she said, “I’ve never been more optimistic about the scientific breakthroughs that we will witness in the upcoming years.”
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.