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Five Scientific Facts: Links between Autism and Vaccines?

in Science

The incidence of autism has increased over 200 fold during the course of my thirty-year career as a medical doctor. Although more than one billion dollars has been spent trying to find out why, the results have been conflicting and incomplete. Meanwhile, research on brain development suggests vaccines could be dangerous in infancy, but this information is buried in science journals. That isn’t unusual. It takes an average of 17 years for published findings to lead to changes in clinical practice, even when the studies have major clinical ramifications.

Countless families are convinced that a vaccine was the direct cause of their child’s regression into symptoms of autism, after having shown normal development for over a year. Many doctors silently wonder if they violate their Hippocratic oath when giving vaccines. Billions of dollars have been paid out as compensation for vaccine-induced injuries, but claims are denied automatically if the condition is labeled “autism“, rather than “encephalopathy”, which means “brain damage.” Nonetheless, vaccines are still presented as safe. The question on many minds is, What should we believe? Science can help us here.

Fact One: Autism is actually multiple conditions with various causes.

The first thing to understand is that autism is a psychiatric diagnosis, and psychiatry describes syndromes, not diseases. Syndromes are the medical term for clusters of symptoms that occur together. Like depression, syndromes can, and usually do, have multiple causes. Adding to the confusion, the criteria for autism was broadened when it became autism spectrum disorder. Compounding this is the fact that most diagnoses are made by pediatricians, not trained brain specialists.

Many children are diagnosed as autistic because they fail to make eye contact and have poor social interactions. However, these symptoms can also be the result of visual problems, nutritional deficiencies, food sensitivities, and/or toxicities. The fact that autism was a misdiagnosis becomes obvious when these children improve after their problems are recognized and addressed. Unfortunately, once the diagnosis of autism has been given, many of these children are incorrectly regarded by doctors as being untreatable.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are children who may be physically healthy, but receive the diagnosis of autism because they are quiet, introverted “science geeks.” They often simply need social skill training. How can we possibly determine whether there is a distinct cause and effect between vaccines and autism from epidemiological data when the symptoms for diagnosis are so broadly defined? We can’t. Nonetheless, studies that lump these children together comprise much of the science being quoted to refute any proposed autism-vaccine connection.

Fact Two: We only learned recently that our brains are armed with their own unique immune system, including lymphatic channels and cells called microglia.

These microglia reside all over the brain, but some brain areas have higher concentrations. To the untrained eye, microglia resemble neurons. They too have cell bodies with multiple appendages going out in all directions. Their primary function is to monitor and maintain the health of synapses, which are the communication connection points between neurons.

Fact Three: Between conception and the age of three, our brains form up to twice as many synapses as we will need as adults. 

Having too many neurons and their connections is a problem, and eliminating them is another function of microglia. During our first four years of life, the brain’s microglia play a vital role in learning by removing excess synapses that aren’t being reinforced, literally sculpting our brains in response to our environments. This process is called “pruning.” Signs of over and under-pruning are common pathological features of “autistic” children. Although the exact locations may differ widely among individuals, some brain areas will contain too many connections, while other areas have too few.

Fact Four: Microglia are not locked in place like neurons, as was originally thought. They can become mobile.

Microglia are immunological cousins of the macrophages, or “big eaters" circulating in our bloodstream. When a threat is detected, no matter where, macrophages secrete cytokines, or chemical messengers, to recruit other immune cells from many parts of the body.

We now know that immune cells and their chemicals can cross the epithelial barrier into the brain, particularly now when we have many blood-brain-barrier disrupters in our environment. Cytokines in sufficient numbers will activate the brain’s microglia to withdraw their appendages, transforming them into roaming macrophages that travel around the brain several times in an hour. Rather than prune excess synapses, microglia now attack and remove cells incorrectly interpreted by the immune system as foreign, or unhealthy, leading to encephalopathy.

Fact Five: We are acting as though the immune system and brain operate separately, when science emphatically tells us otherwise. There is even an entire branch of study devoted to the interplay between the two systems.

Despite discovering the role of the immune system in learning, we are far more aggressive now in vaccinating children during the ages at which this critical pruning process is occurring than we were thirty years ago. In 1983, by the age of 15 months a child was exposed to only five vaccinations. By 2013 the number mandated by the CDC had increased to 25. Fifteen months is around the average age at which most of the affected children develop the regression.   

As a scientist I have learned there are always sound reasons for biological processes, even if we don’t recognize their value at first. Vaccinations in infancy promote increased immune activity when this system is so immature that irritants must be added to force immune cells to respond more aggressively than they would to a deactivated virus. One of the stated reasons for our vaccine schedule beginning at birth is to prevent infant encephalopathies caused by viral illnesses, such as measles and rubella. What if these viral illnesses are more damaging to the brains of infants than adults for precisely the same reason that vaccines may be doing harm at this age? What if the infant’s immune system is “immature” in order to not activate the microglia while sensory input and learning are guiding brain sculpting?

We also need to ask why many of the countries with fewer vaccinations have better infant mortality outcomes than the United States. Doctors in this country who follow Dr Paul Thomas’ modified vaccination protocol report a highly significant reduction in the incidence of “autism.” We can have it both ways. Vaccinating against most illnesses a little later and making sure the child’s immune system is healthy and not overtaxed will reduce the risk of vaccine-caused injury. By screening for nutritional deficiencies and toxicities in pregnant women and infants, we could have healthier children at a critical and formative age for brain development, bestowing lifelong benefits. 

Our health policies need to reflect our current science. Making a positive difference in the wellbeing of others is why many of us became doctors and scientists. With autism being diagnosed in almost two percent of the children born today, we cannot afford to wait 17 years.

Here is a link to my most recent blog on this topic:

1. Kierdorfand, K and Prinz, M, “Factors regulating microglia activation”, Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, 2013; 7: 44.doi: 10.3389/fncel.2013.00044

2. Kim, H.J., Cho, M.H. et al, “Deficient autophagy in microglia impairs synaptic pruning and causes social behavioral defects”, Molecular Psychiatry, 12 July 2016; doi: 10.1038/mp.2016.103

3. Miller, N.Z., Goldman, G.S., “Infant mortality rates regressed against number of vaccine doses routinely given: Is there a biochemical or synergistic toxicity?” Human & Experimental Toxicology, Sept 2011, 30(9)

4. Paolicelli, R.C., Bolasco, G., Pagani, F. et al., “Pruning by microglia is necessary for normal brain development”, Science, 09 Sep 2011: Vol. 333, Issue 6048, pp. 1456-1458

DOI: 10.1126/science.1202529Synaptic

5. Thomas, P and Margulis, J. The Vaccine-Friendly Plan: Dr. Paul's Safe and Effective Approach to Immunity and Health-from Pregnancy Through Your Child's Teen Years, Penguin Random House: 2016




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