Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum

Major brain structures implicated in autism.
Major brain structures implicated in autism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Dr. Mercola
When I was in medical school, more than 30 years ago, the incidence of autism was one in 100,000. Today, the incidence has climbed to 1 in 50, according to CDC statistics.1
This is a startling increase from 2008 data,2 which showed one in 88 children had the condition. Some experts believe that if you consider the full range of neurological disorders that could fall under the wider umbrella of "Autism Spectrum Disorder," the incidence may be as high as one in 10!
The video above features Dr. Temple Grandin, author of The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum. In it, she discusses the transformation that has occurred since autism first became recognized.
Originally, the study of autism was primarily confined to the fields of psychology, and then genetics. Today, much of the research has moved into neurology, and Dr. Grandin shares some of the more exciting discoveries, including the use of neuroimaging.
This echoes the comments of Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist specializing in the use of SPECT imaging, which can be of profound use when trying to diagnose a wide variety of neurological disorders, whom I previously interviewed.
For example, Dr. Amen's work shows that most cases of depression and anxiety are really symptoms of underlying brain dysfunction, commonly caused by toxic exposures, and/or a combination of poor lifestyle habits such as a poor diet and lack of exercise.
One of the major benefits of SPECT imaging is in fact the ability to identify damage caused by toxic exposures, which can be critical for proper treatment, whether you're dealing with depression, autism, ADHD, or any other neurological disorder. As I'll discuss below, toxicity may in fact be a significant factor in the development of autism.

Autism—Thinking Across the Spectrum

I was fortunate to find a talk Dr. Grandin recently gave at Google, in which she discusses autism traits that are of profound use to society, noting that many IT professionals exhibit behaviors and thinking patterns that fall within the spectrum of autism.
This is in fact what makes the study of autism so challenging—the spectrum is so wide that on the one end you have leaders of multi-billion dollar Silicon Valley companies, and on the other, you have people who are unable to communicate or even dress themselves.
Dr. Grandin also focuses on how differences in brain structure result in different thinking and processing patterns—information that can be useful in any relationship. 

Autistic people's brains actually process information differently, as neuroimaging now show, and depending on where a person is on the autism spectrum, he or she may exhibit certain strengths and weaknesses. The same applies for non-autistic people as well, of course. For example:
  • Photo realistic visual thinkers are good at visualizing object, but poor at algebra
  • Pattern thinkers excel at music and math, but tend to have trouble reading
  • Those who excel at verbal language translation tend to be poor at drawing pictures
  • Auditory thinkers have fragmented visual perception
One of the keys to allow children with autism spectrum symptoms to thrive is to understand how they process information, and adjust their education and activities accordingly.

The Causes of Autism Spectrum Are Likely Manifold

From my perspective, having had the opportunity to speak with a number of pioneering physicians, I believe there's a conglomerate of potential factors that contribute to the rise in autism spectrum disorder, including but not limited to the following. The countless possible combinations of these and other factors could help explain why there's such a wide spectrum of autistic behavior:
  • Gut dysbiosis in combination with vaccine and their additives like mercury (thimerosal), aluminum, and others, which are known to damage your mitochondria—the powerhouses in your body's cells that produce energy
  • Microbial toxins, such as mold
  • Dietary factors (including genetically engineered foods, agricultural chemicals, food additives, and food processing techniques—all of which destroy gut flora that is critical for normal development and brain function, and contribute to nutritional deficiencies)
  • Vitamin D deficiency. The link between vitamin D deficiency in pregnant women and the proportionate jump in autism has been highlighted by Dr. John Cannell. Vitamin D receptors appear in a wide variety of brain tissue early in the fetal development, and activated vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in your brain.
  • I believe vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy is a MAJOR contributing factor to autism, especially when you consider that vitamin D also helps in the detoxification of mercury. Without sufficient amounts of vitamin D, any subsequent toxic assaults—regardless of the source—will be further magnified
  • Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from cell phones, cell towers, and Wi-Fi devices, which can trap heavy metals inside of nerve cells, accelerate heavy metal toxicity, and hinder natural detoxification processes

The Connection Between Autism and Gut Flora

While not discussed in Dr. Grandin's presentation, one factor I believe may be critically important is the link between a child's gut flora and the development of autism spectrum symptoms. Your gastrointestinal system is often referred to as your "second brain," containing some 100 million neurons—more than in either your spinal cord or your peripheral nervous system. 

And research by pioneers such as Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride shows there's a profound dynamic interaction between your gut, your brain, and your immune system.
She has developed what might be one of the most profoundly important treatment strategies for preventing and treating autism, as well as a wide range of other neurological, psychological, and autoimmune disorders—all of which are heavily influenced by your gut health.
Her findings show that children born with severely damaged gut flora are at a significantly increased risk of vaccine damage, which may help explain why some children develop symptoms of autism after receiving one or more childhood vaccinations while others do not. (Another group of children that may also over-react to vaccinations are siblings of children with autism, severe hyperactivity, obsessive compulsive disorder, mental conditions, and type 1 diabetes.)
Children use all of their sensory organs to collect information from their environment, which is then passed to the brain for processing. This is a fundamental part of learning. However, in children with Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS)—a term coined by Dr. Campbell-McBride—the toxicity flowing from their gut clogs their brain with toxicity, preventing it from performing its normal function and processing sensory information.
Keep in mind that this toxic burden is NOT necessarily limited to thimerosal (mercury-based preservative) or aluminum-based adjuvants found in some vaccines. The MMR vaccine for example does not contain thimerosal or aluminum. Instead, it appears the measles virus in the vaccine may contribute to chronic inflammation of the bowel, thereby unleashing a cascade of harmful effects on the brain.
Autism isn't the only potential outcome in this case. GAPS may manifest as a conglomerate of symptoms that can fit the diagnosis of either autism, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, just to name a few possibilities. Digestive issues, asthma, allergies, skin problems, and autoimmune disorders are also common outgrowths of GAPS, as it can present itself either psychologically or physiologically. It's critically important here to understand that the gut flora your child acquires during vaginal birth is dependent on your—the mother's—gut flora. So if your microflora is abnormal, your child's will be as well. Hence, addressing your gut health prior to, and during pregnancy, is essential.

How to Identify GAPS

The good news is that it's possible to identify GAPS within the first weeks of your baby's life, which can help you make better informed decisions about vaccinations, and about how to proceed to set your child on the path to a healthy life. This is done by analyzing your child's stool to determine the state of her gut flora, followed by a urine test to check for metabolites, which can give you a picture of the state of your child's immune system.
If your child turns out to have abnormal gut flora, Dr. Campbell-McBride strongly advises against vaccinating with the standard vaccination protocol until or unless the metabolic characteristics of GAPS have been reversed, in order to prevent vaccine damage. The non-invasive tests described in her book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome, are now available in most laboratories around the world, and typically run around $80-100 each in the US. This is peanuts compared to the incredible expense of treating an autistic child once the damage is done.

Strategies to Restore Health to Children with GAPS and Autism

There is a growing wealth of evidence demonstrating that the nutritional cause of many diseases is related to an imbalance of bacteria in your gut, a problem easily rectified by eating a diet consisting of high-quality, minimally processed, and preferably organic, foods.
There's also plenty of evidence showing the harm being done by the over-prescribing of antibiotics as they are indiscriminate killers, eradicating all the beneficial bacteria in your gut along with the bad ones. Agricultural chemicals like glyphosate, and processed foods in general also decimate healthy microbes, and are best avoided—especially if you're pregnant or planning a pregnancy. Dr. Campbell has developed a very effective treatment for GAPS children, called the GAPS Nutritional Protocol. It is described in great detail in her book, which is designed to be a self-help book. In summary, the protocol consists of three elements:
  • Diet—the GAPS diet consists of easily-digestible foods that are dense in nutrition, including fermented foods. In general, avoiding processed foods and foods high in sugar/fructose is an essential component of a gut-healthy diet, as sugar feeds harmful bacteria and throws your microflora off kilter. It also promotes insulin resistance, and ultimately type 2 diabetes, so it's easy to see how the dietary component can contribute to all of the problems discussed here: type 2 diabetes, imbalanced gut flora, and brain/learning/developmental disorders.
  • Food supplements - including probiotics and vitamins D and A in the form of cod liver oil, although sun exposure is also an important part for GAPS patients, for proper vitamin D production.
  • Detoxification—The GAPS nutritional protocol will naturally clear out most toxins. Dr. Campbell does not use any kind of drugs or chemicals to remove toxins as it can be too drastic for some, and can produce damaging side effects. Instead she recommends juicing as a gentle but effective way of removing toxic build-up, as well as baths with Epsom salt, sea salt, seaweed powder, apple cider vinegar, and baking soda.

The Importance of Vitamin D and Cholesterol During Pregnancy

I also want to mention the importance of vitamin D and cholesterol during pregnancy, to help protect your child from autism. The most crucial role for both vitamin D and cholesterol in the embryo is in the development of the brain and central nervous system. Not only is cholesterol a core building block of the brain, but vitamin D also plays a critical although not well-understood role in brain development. Deficiency in either cholesterol and/or vitamin D may affect your child's autism risk.
For example, one previous study3 measuring cholesterol levels in children with autism found a striking correlation between low cholesterol and symptoms of either autism or Asperger's syndrome. And, according to Dr. John Cannell of the Vitamin D Council, several research findings suggest that low vitamin D levels during pregnancy, and during infancy, may raise the risk of autistic symptoms.4
Vitamin D is manufactured in your body from cholesterolagain showing the interconnected importance of maintaining optimal levels of both—especially during pregnancyThis happens in your skin as a result of sun exposure. Keep in mind that if you're wearing a sunscreen, then you're pretty much guaranteeing that you won't generate any vitamin D.

Helpful Strategies for Autistic Children

There's tremendous hope for children with autism and I have made it one of my goals to provide parents with as many safe and effective cutting-edge solutions as possible. Based on my own experience and insight from many autism experts, here are my recommendations:
  1. Optimize vitamin D levels through proper sun exposure. If that is not possible, then use a safe tanning bed or as a last resort oral vitamin D. It is VITAL to make sure a pregnant mother's vitamin D level is above 50 ng/ml during her entire pregnancy. This is clearly the easiest and most profoundly important recommendation to implement.
  2. Eliminate processed foods, sugar (particularly fructose) and grains from your child's diet: Sugar is in fact toxic to your body, capable of causing profound harm to your health. This includes ALL forms of sugar, whether it's regular table sugar or corn-based sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, or agave, and whether it's found in juice, soda, French fries, or grain products (such as pasta, bagels, cereal, pretzels, etc).
  3. Avoid pasteurized milk. This is absolutely imperative when you're treating autism. This includes ALL milk products, including ice cream, yogurt, and even whey. Even natural flavorings in food must be avoided unless the processor can guarantee, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that caseinate is not included.
  4. Lower microbial burden: Any type of chronic infection, whether caused by Lyme disease or any other microbe, such as mold, can spread through your system and make you chronically ill. One of the major problems is that the biotoxins produced by the infection compete for the same detoxification pathways as do other toxins, like mercury and pesticides, and so on.
  5. Make your child's body less of an optimal habitat for microbial overgrowth through dietary changes (less starch and sugar at minimum) and lowering overall stress. Also, consider testing for mold (in your home) and Lyme (in their body) but only after "provocation treatment."
  6. Lower your toxic burden: Avoid exposure to as many environmental toxins as you can, such as pesticides, herbicides, and sources of mercury, aluminum and fluoride. Also, do whatever you can to establish a mold, dust, and smell-free environment for your whole family, followed by a comprehensive detoxification program. Please remember hidden toxins like fluoride and carefully evaluate all cleaning products in your home.
  7. Reduce EMF exposure: Exposure to electromagnetic fields from cell phones, electrical wiring, and Wi-Fi may significantly add to the problem because when toxic microbes in your body are exposed to electromagnetic fields, they respond as if they're being attacked, and start producing even more biotoxins in an attempt to prolong their survival.
  8. Use an effective intervention to address any emotional stresses as soon as possible – avoid having destructive thoughts and letting emotions fester. Potent energy psychology tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique are excellent for this purpose.
  9. Carefully review the vaccination issue, including the conventional vaccination schedule. Know that in most US states you have the right to opt out of vaccines. Remember, an imbalance in gut flora can leave your child a sitting duck for vaccine complications. If you decide to vaccinate, it is crucial that you first confirm that your child has good gut flora and will not be at an increased risk of adverse effects from a vaccine.
There's no doubt that the avalanche of autism must be curbed, and we cannot afford to wait for a magic bullet. While science is making some progress in the diagnosing and treatment of autism spectrum disorders, I believe they're failing to take into account some of the most basic and foundational factors, such as gut health and cholesterol- and vitamin D deficiency.
Prevention is surely preferable to treatment, which is why I'm so passionate about sharing this information so that you can take action BEFORE your child becomes symptomatic. If you're pregnant, planning a pregnancy, or know someone who is, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Dr. Campbell's book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome. You can also find more information on Dr. Campbell's website:, and on her blog at
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