Home > Science > The importance of studying environmental factors in ASD

The importance of studying environmental factors in ASD

Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened a panel of experts to investigate the role of environmental factors in autism spectrum disorders (ASD; link to web archive for video). Although genetic factors are known to contribute to the risk of autism, we also need to understand environmental factors and their interactions with genetic susceptibility.

The dramatic increase in autism prevalence over the last two decades—over 600% during this period—underscores the need for more research on environmental factors.  Our understanding of typical brain development combined with what we’ve learned from examining the brains of individuals with autism have focused efforts on the prenatal and early postnatal environment.  To investigate environmental factors that may be active during this time, researchers are casting a wide net on potential environmental agents that can alter neurodevelopment, including exposure to metals, pesticides, polybrominated diphenylethers and other chemicals.

Isaac Pessah, Ph.D., Director of the University of California, Davis, Children’s Center for Environmental Health and Disease Prevention, participated in the panel and said in his testimony, “We must identify which environmental exposures and combination of exposures are contributing to increased overall risk in the population and identify the most susceptible groups. Only by bringing together the concerted effort of multidisciplinary teams of scientists can we identify which of the >80,000 commercially important chemicals currently in production promote developmental neurotoxicity consistent with the immunological and neurological impairments identified in individuals with idiopathic autism”.

To help speed an understanding of environmental factors, Autism Speaks is supporting research on several fronts. In 2008, Autism Speaks launched the Environmental Factors Initiative to fund investigators researching aspects of environmental causes and autism.

A collaboration with the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has resulted in a network of 35 international scientists who gathered at this year’s International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) to promote collaboration, identify gaps in our understanding and foster opportunities for innovative research which is discussed in more detail in Dr. Dawson’s 2010 IMFAR recap.  This fall, Autism Speaks and NIEHS will co-sponsor a workshop to help identify the most promising strategies and scientific directions for understanding the role of the environment in ASD.

A large collaborative study which will pull together data from six international registries is being funded by Autism Speaks to explore early environmental risk factors for ASD.

Autism Speaks is also leveraging longstanding investments to make the best use of research resources that currently exist. For example, the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE), a premiere genetic resource for scientists studying autism, is now collecting environmental data from families to pair with the genetic and medical data. Autism Speaks has partnered with the National Institutes of Health to fund the the EARLI and IBIS research networks to study environmental factors in infants at risk for autism. The EARLI network is following 1200 mothers of children with autism from the start of another pregnancy through the baby sibling’s third birthday. The IBIS network is charting the course of brain development in infant siblings of children with autism. Together with Autism Speaks, these groups are exploring both genetic and environmental risk factors for ASD.

Taken together, Autism Speaks’ investment in research on environmental factors promises to shed light on an important area of autism research that has until recently remained in the shadows.  We look forwarding to following the new directions illuminated by the discoveries made possible by these various research opportunities.

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  1. Katie Wright
    August 9, 2010 at 2:23 pm | #1

    Pessah was indeed terrific. Everyday our kids come into contact with dozens of toxic substances: household cleaning supplies, pesticides, fertilizer, PBAs, lead in toys, etc…Sadly our govt has not done a good job ensuring the safety of these products. Obviously babies and children are at the highest risk for developing neurological damage as result of these toxic substances.

    Whereas we cannot change our genes we certainly can immediately do whatever we can to limit our exposures to toxins. I was disappointed that this post was neglected to mention to toxic adjuvants in vaccines. They represent yet another unknown/ unresearched toxin- however this one is injected to babies starting the day they are born.It is going to to take forever and cost hundreds of millions to research all 80,000 toxic substances. Why not start with the toxins nearly all American babies are exposed to on their first day of life and a possible trigger that concerns so many families.

    EARLI will be studying children yet to be born! We need so much more targeted, short term environmental research now- and that includes vaccines/ the schedule and the adjuvants. Make it a priority and just get it done.

    • Kate
      August 13, 2010 at 3:15 pm | #2

      Katie, could you email me at cmarts4@gmail.com I have a Dr’s office in Florida that seems to have great links. I had chemotherapy and ended up with all sorts of symptoms. It is a dream of mine to talk to you.

  2. August 10, 2010 at 7:31 am | #3

    In India, if you consider > 80000 types of environmental chemicals are the cause of ASD; then we should have more and more no. of cases from the people from the low socio economic strata having ASD.
    Unfortunately that is not the case, we have been witnessing more kids having ASD, who come from families working in IT sector and kids from families of high intellects.
    Is there any way to justify this?
    None of the studies done in India so far, give any data on prevalence of ASD in India?
    The Government of India has not included ASD in the PWD act of 1995 as a disability, yet!

  3. Kate
    August 13, 2010 at 3:13 pm | #4

    1200 babies is not enough. There needs to be a multi-site study. Possibly in other countries. I’m wondering what the rates of Autism are in India which is highly polluted. :(

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