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Mitochondrial dysfunction, autism and environmental illness

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Back in February of this year the US government admitted that in the case of young Hannah Poling, a reaction to vaccinations she received had resulted in her developing autism.

This admission sent the media, bloggers and online autism forums into a spin with many seeing it as concrete proof that vaccines are the cause, or at least a cause, of the developmental disorder. Medical experts however maintained that Hannah had an underlying mitochondrial disorder, which they said, was extremely rare and so the same process could not account for a significant number of other cases of autism.

It now turns out however, that the medical experts may have been wrong! Results of a new study announced on Monday by the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation (UMDF) reveal that at least one in 200 healthy humans "harbors a pathogenic mitochondrial mutation that potentially causes disease." The landmark study is published in the current issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics.

What the research demonstrates is that contrary to what the medical experts were saying back in February, mitochondrial disease and milder dysfunction is in fact NOT a rare occurence. This remarkable finding could be a key piece of the puzzle, not just in autism, but in a host of other unexplained diseases.

Mitochondria are miniature power stations found within most cells, converting glucose and oxygen into energy in a form the body can utilise. The brain and central nervous system demand large amounts of energy to function efficiently so contain a high concentration of mitochondria.

Speaking to David Kirby of The Huffington Post, UMDF Executive Director and CEO Charles A. Mohan, Jr said, "What this says to me is that more than 1-in-4,000 people have mitochondrial disease". Mohan continued, "And it tells me that 1-in-200 could develop some type of mitochondria-related disease over the course of their lifetime, depending in part on environmental triggers."

A few months ago researchers in Baltimore published results from a study of 30 children from one autism clinic who it was found all had nearly identical markers for mild mitochondrial dysfunction. One of these autistic children being Hannah Poling.

The researchers discovered that all 30 children were developing normally until they encountered some type of immunological stress, either a typical childhood virus or a vaccination(s), when they began showing signs of regressive autism. In Hannah and one other case the trigger was thought to be the administration of vaccines while in the remaining 28 children a viral infection was the likely culprit.

So although much more large scale research is required to say for sure, it now seems that a much larger percentage of the population than previously thought has some form of mitochondrial dysfunction which might leave them open to developing various medical conditions. Whether they do become ill depends in part, as UMDF Executive Director Mohan says, on the environmental triggers they are exposed to.

It seems like childhood viruses and vaccines (particularly when many are given close together) are likely triggers for mitochondrial dysfunction in those with susceptible genetics but what other environmental triggers could trigger such dysfunction? Mercury and other heavy metals? Pesticides? Petrochemicals found in personal care and household cleaning products? Many autism organisations are already pushing for more research into the interaction between such environmental triggers and genetics in the genesis of the disorder and these findings relating to mitochondrial dysfunction will only strengthen the case for well funded and designed studies.

In children whose brains are developing rapidly and require vast amounts of energy it seems that mitochondrial dysfunction leads to developmental disorders such as autism. In adults however other conditions may result.

Mitochondrial dysfunction and low cellular energy is seen in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) patients. Interestingly this condition often follows an acute viral infection or exposure to pesticides. Could it be that in older children and adults mitochondrial dysfunction triggered by viral infection or toxic insult often results in ME/CFS rather than autism? Only further research can answer this question. It is also interesting to note however that ME/CFS patients commonly report adverse reactions to vaccinations. On a personal note as a ME/CFS sufferer I was acutely ill for a week after a tetanus vaccination. My arm swelled up like a balloon around the site of the vaccination and I was pretty much totally incapacitated.

For more on mitochondrial dysfunction in ME/CFS see this article by Dr. Sarah Myhill: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome - Definition, Test & Treatment

Mitochondrial dysfunction has also recently been implicated in depression. It's hardly surprising that if the cells aren't producing as much energy as they should that mental energy and mood will suffer. A study published in March of this year indicated that people whose cellular energy production was at the lower end of normal are at increased risk for developing depressive illness.

Read more about this here: Depression may be caused by poor cellular energy production


These findings on the prevalence of mitochondrial disease and dysfunction are exciting and very important for the future direction of research into autism and other environmental diseases. They open up the possibility that these conditions can be avoided by identifying environmental triggers and perhaps effectively treated with nutrients and medications which correct mitochondrial dysfunction.


Mitochondrial dysfunction, autism and environmental illnessDynamic Neural Retraining Program (DNRS)


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