Autism researcher Patricia Rodier, Professor at the University of Rochester, has died. U. Rocherster discusses this on their website as Scientist Patricia Rodier, Trailblazer in Early Origins of Autism, Dies.
Patricia Rodier, Ph.D., the first scientist to formulate and study the idea that autism can originate long before a child is born, died May 3 at Strong Memorial Hospital. She was 68.
An embryologist specializing in the nervous system, Dr. Rodier completely changed the way we think about the development of autism. While many believed that the disorder arose very late in pregnancy or in the early part of an infant’s life, Dr. Rodier’s research turned that widely held, but unproven, belief upside down. Her work established that genetic and environmental factors can also spur the development of the disorder as early as three weeks into a pregnancy, when the first cells of the nervous system start to develop.
Prof. Rodier became interested in autism relatively late in her career, but early in the modern era of autism research: 1994. She heard about a study showing a high prevalence of autism in adults who had been exposed to thalidomide prenatally. She gathered a team to investigate how autism develops early during gestation.
She wrote an article in 2000 for Scientific American, The Early Origins of Autism (also available online in full here). A lot has happened in autism research since then, but much of what she did and had to say is very relevant today. For example, she performed research using post-mortem brain tissue. She notes that the twin studies, even those available at the time, showed that more than simple inheritance was at play. She notes multiple prenatal environmental exposures which increased autism risk (thalidomide, maternal rubella infection and valproic acid). She notes how the data, even then, pointed to multiple genes being involved.
In short, many ideas which are considered “new” (e.g. multiple genes as a risk factor) or that “mainstream medicine refuses to consider” (e.g. environmental risk factors) are discussed in that 12 year old article.
Another part of Prof. Rodier’s research which became extremely relevant in the discussion of autism causation was her work on mercury exposures. From the U. Rochester webpage:
A professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Dr. Rodier was also a world expert on mercury toxicity, studying how single exposures to the chemical during pregnancy influence a baby’s brain development. To this day, much of the research being done on mercury exposure and birth defects is based on Dr. Rodier’s early findings.
She was likely the one person in the world who had strong expertise in both autism development and mercury. She was called upon as a witness for the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (discussed here and here). Her expert report for the OAP is an excellent resource for people trying to make sense of the autism/mercury notion.
I exchanged emails with Prof. Rodier a few times to discuss her work. While I never actually spoke with her, the “voice” of her emails was always very kind. I found out about her passing when I was considering contacting her again recently. I wish her family well.
–by Matt Carey