Autism is an increasingly common disorder in which patients show deficiencies in speech and communication, social skills, and, in some, cognitive skills. The rates of autism diagnosis have been increasing over time, and the cause of autism has been a mystery for decades. Increasing numbers of studies are pointing to both environmental factors and genetic factors as driving the increase. Initial theories included the idea that one or more environmental factors contribute to the risk of autism, an idea that has stirred increasing amounts of controversy.
One scientist was interested in taking on the task of studying the totality of the evidence in the scientific literature to help answer broader questions: what is the relative contribution of genetics and environmental causal factors contributing to autism, and what is the plausibility of specific biological mechanisms that lead to autism being caused by environmental factors, and what proportion is due to genetics? He also set out to find out what can science and medicine do to reduce the rates of autism overall?
A new book that reviews this literature contains a massive amount of information that clarifies the questions, and, for those who have read it, provides clear answers to many of the mysteries of autism. “We hear from the medical community that autism is a tragic but inevitable outcome of genetic roulette. Dr Lyons-Weiler, an impeccably credentialed biologist, clearly explains the environmental causes of this terrible spectrum of disorders”, says clinician Michael Gaeta. “The book not only reviews the literature on causes: it organizes most of the world’s knowledge on what autism is, what it isn’t, what its causes are, and which genes are known to contribute to specific pieces of the autism puzzle as a medical condition”, says Dr. Richard Frye.
The book highlights the specific molecular processes that lead to differences and changes in the human brain leading to specific characteristics, or “phenotypes”, that contribute to autism diagnosis. “There are many biological pathways impacted by the toxins that cause autism”, says the author, Dr. Lyons-Weiler, of The Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge in Pittsburgh, PA, “but there are also many genes that contribute”. He says that some of these pathways disrupted by toxins are also affected by mutations that disrupt functions in ways that exactly mimic the effects of the environmental factors. “This phenomenon is known as ‘phenomimicry’, and it is one of the reasons why coming to consensus on causes of autism has been so difficult. You can’t tell from association studies whether a person’s autism was in fact caused by an environmental exposure until you know their genetics, and you cannot tell from genetic studies whether their diagnosis resulted from genetics unless you also study environmental exposures”.
Does Dr. Lyons-Weiler thing that means we will never know the causes of autism?
“No, we know many causes of autism, in general: the science done to date showing links to both environment and genes has been done individually. Geneticists also study the interaction between genes and environment, and we will soon see calls for biomarkers to tell families which toxins they need to avoid most.”
“Different toxins likely cause autism in different families”, says Lyons-Weiler. “And the research cited in the book still leaves important questions, such as why does it occur in some people, but not others? And what, as a society, can and should we do about that?My book is a tool that I hope will help others frame the right questions to answer the most important questions”.
The book, titled “The Environmental and Genetic Causes of Autism”, will be released November 8 by Skyhorse Publishing.