Does Inflammation Play a Role in Autism?

Child with AutismResearchers have found that the most striking differences between autistic and normal brains were loss of the purkinje cell layer in the cerebellum, and also activation of the microglia, which are cells that are central to the inflammatory response.

The inflammatory response is your body's defense against invasion, but in autism, it seems to be turned against itself. It seems there is an inflammatory war going on in the brains of autistic children and adults.

According to Psychology Today:

"Other studies have shown that autism is possibly an autoimmune disease of some kind ... the immune system is not only fighting external invaders or bad guys in the body, such as viruses, bacteria, or newly-formed cancer cells, but also has started to attack presumably healthy tissues of the body.

In the evolutionary medicine paradigm, autoimmune disorders are diseases of civilization, caused by our highly inflammatory diets and stressful lifestyles."

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

When I graduated medical school in the early '80s autism was not covered in my pediatrics rotation that I could recall.


Well it only affected about one in 100,000 children when I was in medical school. Since then there has been a dramatic increase to one in 150 and more recently autism rates in the United States have conservatively increased to 1 in 63. And this number is FOUR years old.

This is the shocking conclusion from the 2007 survey results from the National Survey of Children's Health (NSCH), which reveals a 100 percent increase in parent-reported cases of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) compared to their 2003 survey.

Modern Medicine Clueless About the Real Causes of Autism

Clearly, something is going on; something is going wrong! But despite the growing prevalence, the medical system is still virtually clueless as to what is causing the epidemic of autism spectrum disorders.

Conventional medicine likes to point the finger at genetics, but science shows that only 1 percent of autism cases are likely due to a genetic mutation. Despite this, funding for studying the genetic causes of autism is 10 to 20 times higher than funding for environmental causes, according to Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiology professor at University of California, Davis who led a study linking California's sevenfold increase in autism to environmental exposures.

Many want to blame the increase in autism on mercury. While it is clear I have been vigorously opposed to mercury and encourage everyone to avoid it at all costs, I do believe many in the autism field have made a mistake by seeking to pin the blame on mercury, as there are likely many other contributing factors. Putting emphasis on mercury allows conventional science to diminish the autism epidemic.

It's time "modern" medicine caught up with the times on this issue, as the picture is becoming much clearer that the underlying causes of autism cannot be blamed on genetics, or solely on mercury, but on a variety of external factors. Among them, one of the most promising is inflammation.

The Inflammation-Autism Link

Writing in Psychology Today, psychiatrist Emily Deans, M.D. notes:

"The reason no one has been able to find a specific pathological cause or cure [for autism] is because it is multifactorial -- it seems that a combination of genetic, environmental, neurological, and inflammatory factors contribute to the development of autism."

She then goes on to highlight what she calls "the best evidence of the actual inflammatory damage" that leads to autism, which is a 2005 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Russell Blaylock, M.D. also noted this landmark study in his article "The Danger of Excessive Vaccination During Brain Development: The Case for a Link to Autism Spectrum Disorders:"

"In the Vargas et al study … they examined the brains of 11 autistics from age 5 years to 44 years of age dying without active infectious diseases as compared to age matched controls. That is, they found widespread activation of inflammatory cells (microglia and astrocytes) in the brains of the autistic patients. This explains the widespread brain damage seen in all autism cases.

This study was one of the most carefully conducted, extensive examinations of the immune reactions in the autistic brain ever done and involved immunocytochemistry, cytokine protein assays and enzyme-linked immunoascorbant assays of the brain tissue. They also performed similar assays of spinal fluid from an additional six living autistic patients, which confirmed the intense immune activation and inflammation."

Along with the finding that brain inflammation is common in autistic patients, the disease has also been labeled an autoimmune disease by some, and inflammation is a well-known hallmark of autoimmune disorders.

What Leads to Chronic Inflammation in Autism Cases?

This area is still being studied, but there is some strong evidence that vaccines may be involved.

You may be familiar with Andrew Wakefield's harshly criticized 1998 study linking the MMR triple vaccine with bowel disease and autism. Dr. Andrew Wakefield is just one of many who have investigated the connection between developmental disorders and bowel disease. He has published about 130-140 peer-reviewed papers looking at the mechanism and cause of inflammatory bowel disease, and has extensively investigated the brain-bowel connection in the context of children with developmental disorders such as autism.

A large number of replication studies have also been performed around the world, by other researchers, confirming the curious link between brain disorders such as autism and gastrointestinal dysfunction. For a list of more than 25 of those studies, please see this previous article.

There was even research that came out in 2011 that notes the same connection that Wakefield's team did, which is that many autistic children have chronic bowel inflammation, and have the vaccine strain of the measles virus in their intestines.

Is Excessive Immune Stimulation from Vaccines Leading to Inflammation and Autism?

Dr. Blaylock states:

"A number of papers had been published before the 1998 Wakefield and co-authors' paper appeared and many scientists and clinicians suspected a link between the excessive number of vaccines added to the vaccine schedule in the 1980s and dramatic rise in neurodevelopmental disorders.

I have written seven papers on the subject, four of which describe a detailed mechanism that explains the effects of excessive immune stimulation on brain development and behavioral problems."

He notes that excessive and repeated immune stimulation from vaccines could result in severe disruption of brain development and even neurodegeneration:

"I attributed the central mechanism to excessive and prolonged microglial activation with an interaction between inflammatory cytokines and glutamate receptor subtypes.

The Vargas et al study, published two years later in 2005, strongly supported this hypothesis, with the finding of elevated inflammatory cytokines as well as the presence of extensive, widespread activated microglia and astrocytes in examined autistic brains from age 5 years to 44 years of age. 

This indicated that the brain's immune activation persisted for decades. 

Recent research indicates that this phenomenon is not that uncommon and can be reproduced in the laboratory using a variety of immune stimulating agents and neurotoxins, including mercury and aluminum [often found in vaccines]."

What Else Causes Chronic Inflammation?

Chronic inflammation can be the result of a mal-functioning, over-reactive immune system, or it may be due to an underlying problem that your body is attempting to fight off. Many of these "problems" are actually due to an unhealthy lifestyle.

For instance, eating oxidized or rancid fats and sugar will increase inflammation in your body, eating healthy fats such as animal-based omega-3 fats like krill oil or the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA) will help to reduce them.

Another important factor is the massive increase in the use of fructose. Please realize that it is now the number one source of calories in the United States. This is an absolute perversion of human nature. We were NEVER designed to have this sugar at the type of levels people are consuming, and using this well documented metabolic toxin can clearly serve as a foundation for increasing inflammation.

In fact, all of the following can increase your risk of chronic inflammation:

Being obese or overweight Eating a poor diet An existing heart condition
A family history of heart disease Diabetes that's poorly controlled A sedentary lifestyle (no, or very little, exercise)
Smoking Long-term infections and stress Gum disease

Again, chronic inflammation is solidly linked to autoimmune disease, and there is speculation that autism is an autoimmune disorder.

If Your Child Has Autism …

There are several steps you can take to help:

  1. Eliminating sugar, juice, soda, French fries and wheat (pasta, bagels, cereal, pretzels, etc) from your child's diet is strongly recommended. Please be especially careful to limit all sources of fructose.
  2. Have your child eat a diet tailored to their nutritional type. In my experience, nearly ALL children seem to respond favorably to the dietary changes when properly implemented.
  3. Avoid giving your child pasteurized milk. This is imperative to the treatment of autism, and includes all milk products, such as ice cream, yogurt and 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. Anyone managing this illness without restricting milk is deceiving themselves.
  4. Make sure your child is getting proper sun exposure, as there is a link between rampant vitamin D deficiency and the proportionate jump in autism. The vitamin D receptor appears in a wide variety of brain tissue early in the fetal development, and activated vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in your brain. 
  5. Use an effective intervention to address any emotional stresses your child faces as soon as possible. Potent energy psychology tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) are excellent for this purpose. You can do EFT with your child, and also teach him how to do it himself.
  6. Homeopathy may also help ameliorate symptoms.