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Autism Research Looks Towards Environmental Triggers

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The causes of autism remain a mystery, despite the fact that the disorder affects children in greater numbers than ever before. Until recently, most research in the field of autism focused on genetics and other biological causes. But an article in the Boston Globe reports that such a mindset is changing as science casts a wider net in order to get a handle on the mystifying illness. Now, more researchers are starting focus on possible environmental triggers for autism. In doing so, they are looking at everything from toxic chemicals to infections that could interact with genetics to cause autism.

For too long, autism researchers ignored such environmental triggers. Many who follow autism research blame this on the thimerosal controversy. For years, many parents of autistic children argued that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in vaccines, had a connection to autism. But no study was able to find a definitive connection, and rates of autism continued to rise despite the fact that the use of thimerosol was discontinued. According to the Boston Globe, the thimerosal theory became so highly controversial and polarizing within the autism community that for years, research into environmental triggers was look upon with skepticism. But as rates of autism reached epidemic numbers, scientists realized that genetic factors alone could not account for the upswing.

According to the Boston Globe, this new research is starting to yield intriguing discoveries. Last month, a study in California found that among 29 women who were pregnant and living near an area where pesticides called organochorines were used, eight had children who developed autism. That rate is six times the normal occurrence of autism. As a result of that small study, more research has begun looking for a connection to pesticides and autism.

Another study highlighted by the Globe called Markers of Autism Risk in Babies (MARBLES) will analyze specimens from mothers before they give birth, as well as cord blood and breast milk. Another is being conducted in Norway with the cooperation of Columbia University that will follow children until they are six years old, looking for the causes of a number of diseases, including autism. And the Centers for Disease Control is gathering both biological and environmental information on hundreds of autistic children, in the hopes of finding links that could lead to answers about this devastating diseases.

If exposure to environmental factors is found to have a connection with autism, the epidemic could be curbed. And if it is found that those same factors worsen symptoms in autistic children, treatments could be formulated. According to the Boston Globe article, scientists are hoping that all this research leads to breakthroughs akin to that which occurred for Rye’s Syndrome. Rye’s Syndrome is a rare brain swelling disease that once killed young children following infections like chicken pox. Research eventually discovered that simple aspirin caused the life-threatening disease. While no one expects autism research to yield such a simple answer, it is hoped that in time, expectant parents will be able to avoid some of the things that might put their unborn child at risk for autism.

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