Archived | Autism Speaks: Environmental Factors in Autism Initiative | Circa December 2007


Environmental Factors in Autism Initiative

The role of environmental factors in the development of autism is a crucial area of study. Although we know that genetics is an important factor, genetics alone may not account for all cases of autism. The increase in the reported number of autism cases has generated extreme concern over the potential involvement of toxins as well as infectious agents in our environment. For example, prenatal exposure to the chemicals thalidomide and valproic acid has been linked to a greater risk of a child being born with autism. This initiative targets research that seeks to understand and identify the potential role environmental factors play in triggering autism.

Through its many granting programs, Autism Speaks has and continues to stimulate research into environmental interactions in autism. View the full list of environment-related grants that have been funded. (Below)

In addition to its normal grant calls, through a specific call for proposals, the Environmental Factors in Autism initiative awarded four grants that focus on mercury. Until recently the chemical thimerosal, a mercury derivative, was a commonly used preservative in childhood vaccines and other medical and health products. View a letter written by Cure Autism Now CEO, Peter Bell and Board Chair, Sallie Bernard, which addresses autism and mercury in vaccines.

The grants funded through the Environmental Initiative request for proposals focus on the neurotoxicity of mercury and its possible implication in autism:

A comparative study evaluating the dose-responsiveness effects of methylmercury and thimerosal on select nervous, immune and enzyme parameters
Deborah Keil, Ph.D., Medical University of South Carolina

Role of cytokines in developmental neurotoxicity
Ellen Silbergeld, Ph.D., University of Maryland School of Medicine

Effect of mercury on apoptosis of neuronal cells
Leman Yel, M.D., University of California, Irvine

Provocative urine excretion of heavy metals using meso-2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) in children with autism
Sarah E. Soden and Jennifer A. Lowry, Children’s Mercy Hospitals & Clinics (Bridge Grant)

Issac Pessah #notAnAutisticAlly

Environmental Innovator Awards

To encourage research in this field, Autism Speaks will recognize innovative researchers for their ability to link exposures to toxins in the environment with the biologies that result, and to explain how those relate to the deficits witnessed in individuals with autism. The Inaugural Environmental Innovator Award was given to Isaac Pessah, Ph.D., in recognition of his ongoing research into the biological impact of environmental exposures.


Environmental Projects Funded

Contribution of Calcium Channel Mutations to Autism Risk and Mercury Susceptibility; awarded to Isaac Pessah, Ph.D., UC Davis.

Environmental factors likely interact with underlying genetic susceptibilities to impact biological processes in our bodies. Several toxins, including mercury and PBDE’s, have been shown to impact Ca2+ signaling. This project investigates whether mercury is acting upon underlying genetic differences in Ca2+ signaling to ultimately affect brain and immune function in autism. 


Risk for Developing Autism: A Population-Based Longitudinal Study of Obstetric and Neonatal Factors; awarded to Linda Dodds, Ph.D., Dalhousie University, Canada.


Numerous reports suggest a trend of increasing rates of autism in Canada and in other countries. Little is known about the causes of this disorder. The purpose of this study is to use a population-based approach to identify pregnancy and newborn factors that are associated with the subsequent development of autism. 


Cellular, Physiological and Molecular Mechanisms Underlying Alterations in CNS Development Caused by Exposure to Clinically-Relevant Levels of Mercury-Containing Compounds; awarded to Mark Noble, Ph.D., University of Rochester Medical Center.

These studies focus on thimerosal and methyl mercury in order to understand the cellular basis for vulnerability to these toxicants. The goals are to uncover approaches to identifying oxidative stress that could allow early identification of children at particular risk of damage from environmental toxins, and to study the efficacy of anti-oxidant compounds in protecting against the cellular effects of thimerosal and methyl mercury.


Oxidative Phosphorylation in Cells from Autistic Individuals Compared to Non-Autistic Siblings; awarded to David Holtzman, M.D., Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital.

This study analyzes whether metabolic abnormalities contribute directly to the pathogenesis of autism. Using patient cell lines, the project is designed to identify any abnormalities in mitochondria and the generation of ATP, the chemical form of energy. If successful, these results will lead directly to studies of the genetic mutations or toxic reactions important in the development of autism. 


Impact of Maternal Infection on Neurodevelopment – Structural and Functional Changes; awarded to Geoffrey B.C. Hall, Ph.D., McMaster University, Canada.

Although autism has a strong genetic component, early exposure to environmental insult may be a significant risk factor for the disorder. Exposure to known viruses during the first trimester of pregnancy has been connected to higher rates of autism. The overall objective of this study is to localize and quantify molecular events that occur in offspring as a result of maternal infection. 


The Overlap Between Celiac Disease and Autism – Potential Inflammatory Responses Exacerbated by Exposure to Toxicants Such as Mercury?; awarded to Allen J. Rosenspire, Ph.D., Wayne State University.

The aim of this grant is to research the connection between autism and celiac disease (CD), an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine characterized by intolerance to dietary gluten. Establishing an unambiguous link of CD to autism will allow them to pursue their hypothesis that CD may lead to inappropriate inflammation in the brain, and that patients with CD may also be especially prone to adverse inflammatory responses upon exposure to environmental toxicants such as mercury. 


Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers as a Potential Neurodevelopmental Toxicant; awarded to Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D. University of California, Davis.

Chemicals affecting neurodevelopment are prime suspects in the search for relevant environmental exposures contributing to autism. One such group of chemicals are the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are used as flame retardants. This project will determine whether children with autism have higher concentrations of PBDEs than those from the general population or those with developmental delay but not autism. 
Research Partner: Shirley Craven


Molecular and Environmental Influences on Autism Pathophysiology; awarded to Janel Le Belle, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles.

This study examines the interaction of genetic and environmental changes that may underlie the development of macrocephaly (enlarged head) in autism using a mouse model. Specifically, the study examines how activity of the gene PTEN is affected by oxidative stress, which can be caused by exposure to environmental stressors. 
The Jonathan Pettigrew Memorial Award


Genetic Susceptibility to Mercury-induced Immune Dysfunction in Autism and Autism- Spectrum Disorders awarded to Ellen K. Silbergeld, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Individuals who carry certain variations in specific genes may have heightened responses to mercury, and these variations will increase the likelihood that those children exposed to mercury will develop autism/ASD. This study examines whether there are differences in how cells taken from children with autism/ASD respond to mercury as compared to those from their unaffected siblings and parents. 
Research Partner: Robert and Joni Bell




Glutathione-dependent synthesis of Methylcobalamin: A Target for Neurodevelopmental Toxins; awarded to Richard Deth, Ph.D., Northeastern University, who is a leading researcher in studying the possible correlation between increases in environmental toxins such as thimerosal and incidences of autism. Importantly this project studies the impact of thimerosal on a particular chemical pathway in the body, allowing us to understand what processes may be hindered by exposure to mercury.


Immune Genes and Abnormal Brain Development in Autism;awarded to Lisa Boulanger, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego.

Viral infections and immune responses during pregnancy may increase the risk of children developing autism. This project aims to study how such immune responses may ultimately alter the developing brain.
Research Partner: Liz and Peter Bell


Oxidative Stress in Autism; awarded to Xue Ming, M.D., Ph.D., UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School.

Exposure to environmental factors both pre- and peri-natally can lead to oxidative stress. This project examines whether there is evidence of oxidative stress in individuals with autism, a finding which could lead to new approaches for treating the disorder.


Auditory and Visual Processing Deficits in Autism; awarded to Tal Kenet, Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco.

Environmental exposures of various forms may influence brain development. Specifically, this project looks in detail at how exposure to toxins such as PCPs changes the pattern of neuronal connectivity in the brain, establishes the proof-of-principle that toxins can impact early brain patterning, and suggests that methods to assist brain re-wiring may help re-organize the brain.


A Comparative Study Evaluating the Dose-Responsiveness Effects of Methylmercury and Thimerosal on Select Nervous, Immune and Enzyme Parameters; awarded to Deborah Keil, Ph.D., Medical University of South Carolina.

The purpose of this study is to identify alterations in a variety of immunological, developmental, and learning parameters after postnatal exposure to thimerosal or methylmercury. Dose-response data is determined for thimerosal in a variety of endpoints that have not been previously reported, focusing especially on immunotoxicity, and establishes that methylmercury does not always have similar effects.


Provocative Urine Excretion of Heavy Metals using Meso-2,3-Dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) in Children with Autism; awarded to Sarah Soden, M.D., and Jennifer Lowry, M.D., Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics.

This study seeks to investigate the role heavy metals may play in the etiology of autism by developing a diagnostic test to establish heavy metal toxicity in children with autism. The investigation measures urinary mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic and aluminum prior to and during a 24 hour provocative urine excretion study using the heavy metal chelator DMSA.


Role of Cytokines in Developmental Neurotoxicity; awarded to Ellen Silbergeld, Ph.D., University of Maryland School of Medicine.

This project tests the hypothesis that a major toxic effect of methylmercury exposure is damage to the developing nervous system by inhibiting cell migration. The experiments establish that mercury compounds may do so by interfering with cell-cell communication and gain information on the specific signaling pathways that are affected.


Do Environmental Factors Play a Role in Autism? A Test Using Natural Experiments; awarded to Dennis Kinney, Ph.D., McLean Hospital/ Harvard Medical School.

There have been suggestions that exposure to prenatal stress may impact the development of autism. This project examines whether there is a link between pregnancy during natural disasters and the incidence of autism.


Neuroimmune Reactions in the Pathogenesis of Autism; awarded to Carlos Pardo-Villamizar, M.D., Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

This study hypothesizes that the neurobiological abnormalities in autism are, in part, immune mediated. The research involves examination of tissues for evidence of an inflammatory response within the brain, and documents for the first time the presence of cellular and humoral immunopathological reactions in patients with autism.


Genotypic and Phenotypic Characterization of Paraoxonase Enzymatic Activity in Autistic Patients and First-degree Relatives;awarded to Antonio Persico, M.D., University Campus Bio-Medico, Roma.

This project investigates whether individuals with autism may be especially susceptible to exposure to toxins during critical periods of neurodevelopment. Specifically they examine the serum activity of the enzyme paraoxonase-1, responsible for de-toxifying organophosphates found in common pesticides and other chemicals, along with genetic diversity of the PON-1 gene.


Studies of the Relationship Between Autism and Colonization of the Intestinal Tract by Neurotoxigenic Clostridial Species; awarded to Sydney Finegold, M.D., University of California, Los Angeles.

This group investigates the possibility that neurotoxin-producing bacteria could cause or significantly contribute to autistic symptoms in a subset of children with autism. They examine the Clostridium species isolated from the stools of children with autism.


Effect of Mercury on Apoptosis on Neuronal Cells; awarded to Leman Yel, M.D., University of California, Irvine.

This study examines whether thimerosal causes the death of nerve cells. Specifically, the investigators determined that thimerosal exposure negatively impacts the functioning of the mitochondria within the cells.


A Review Paper on Secular Trends in the Occurrence of Autism;awarded to Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

This contracted project was commissioned to prepare and publish a review on the epidemiology of autism. The goal is to critically explore trends in autism incidence and to use this data to explore current theories of autism causality.


Fact: Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism.


Note/Warning:

Autistic people have fought the inclusion of ABA in therapy for us since before Autism Speaks, and other non-Autistic-led autism organizations, started lobbying legislation to get it covered by insurances and Medicaid. 

ABA is a myth originally sold to parents that it would keep their Autistic child out of an institution. Today, parents are told that with early intervention therapy their child will either be less Autistic or no longer Autistic by elementary school, and can be mainstreamed in typical education classes. ABA is very expensive to pay out of pocket. Essentially, Autism Speaks has justified the big price tag up front will offset the overall burden on resources for an Autistic’s lifetime. The recommendation for this therapy is 40 hours a week for children and toddlers.

The original study that showed the success rate of ABA to be at 50% has never been replicated. In fact, the study of ABA by United States Department of Defense was denounced as a failure. Not just once, but multiple times. Simply stated: ABA doesn’t workIn study after repeated study: ABA (conversion therapy) doesn’t work. 

What more recent studies do show: Autistics who experienced ABA therapy are at high risk to develop PTSD and other lifelong trauma-related conditions. Historically, the autism organizations promoting ABA as a cure or solution have silenced Autistic advocates’ opposition. ABA is also known as gay conversion therapy.


The ‘cure’ for Autistics not born yet is the prevention of birth. 

The ‘cure’ is a choice to terminate a pregnancy based on ‘autism risk.’ The cure is abortion. This is the same ‘cure’ society has for Down Syndrome. 

This is eugenics 2021. Instead of killing Autistics and disabled children in gas chambers or ‘mercy killings’ like in Aktion T4, it’ll happen at the doctor’s office, quietly, one Autistic baby at a time. Different approaches yes, but still eugenics and the extinction of an entire minority group of people.


Fact: You can’t cure Autistics from being Autistic.

Fact: You can’t recover an Autistic from being Autistic.

Fact: You can groom an Autistic to mask and hide their traits. Somewhat. … however, this comes at the expense of the Autistic child, promotes Autistic Burnout (this should not be confused with typical burnout, Autistic Burnout can kill Autistics), and places the Autistic child at high risk for PTSD and other lifelong trauma-related conditions.


[Note: Autism is NOT a disease, but a neurodevelopmental difference and disability.]


Fact: Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism.


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