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Commentary on Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism

22 Dec

I recently wrote about the paper Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism by the MIND Institute. It is difficult to write about the topic of mitochondrial dysfunction and mitochondrial disorders and autism without discussing vaccines. Even the Simons Foundation blog mentioned vaccines in their treatment of the paper, even though the paper makes no comments about vaccines.

Why? Because the case of Hannah Poling and, especially, the way David Kirby presented it to the public has linked autism–mitochondrial dysfunction–vaccines into one neat package. With posts like “NEW STUDY – “Mitochondrial Autism” is Real; Vaccine Triggers Cannot Be Ruled Out” and “The Vaccine-Autism Story: Trust Your Government, or Be a Patriot and Get on Google”. In the latter post he wrote:

“Google “autism and mitochondria,” (96,900 hits) and then Google “mercury and mitochondria,” (169,000 hits) and draw your own, informed conclusions. “

It was very much in David Kirby’s style. Don’t come out and say something directly (like, “mercury is the cause of mitochondrial disease”) but lead the reader along with a series of, well, leading statements.

A more responsible approach would be that one needn’t trust the government nor seek advice on google. A more responsible approach for Mr. Kirby would be to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, parents of autistic kids should seek out the advice of experts in mitochondrial medicine. Mr. Kirby clearly had an agenda, and it wasn’t the well being of autistics. He was promoting the idea that vaccines caused an autism epidemic.

Mr. Kirby thankfully appears to have moved on from focusing his attention on promoting the vaccine-autism hypotheses. And yet, there is obviously a hunger amongst his old readers for this discussion. This can be seen in Mark Hyman’s blog post at the Huffington Post, “Autism Research: Breakthrough Discovery on the Causes of Autism” which has nearly 1,900 comments. Where David Kirby was promoting himself and the interests of groups like SafeMinds and Generation Rescue, Dr. Hyman uses the MIND Institute paper to promote himself and his own business.

What is worse is the way he goes about doing this. Dr. Hyman is even less capable of covering his obvious mistakes than was David Kirby.

Dr. Hyman writes:

While we don’t have all the answers, and more research is needed to identify and validate the causes and treatment of autism, there are new signs of hope. A study just published in The Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers from the University of California, Davis called “Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism” (i) discovered a profound and serious biological underpinning of autism — an acquired loss of the ability to produce energy in the cells, damage to mitochondria (the energy factories in your cells), and an increase in oxidative stress (the same chemical reaction that causes cars to rust, apples to turn brown, fat to become rancid, and skin to wrinkle). These disturbances in energy metabolism were not due to genetic mutations, which is often seen in mitochondrial problems, but a condition the children studied acquired in utero or after birth.

The statement is amazing. Not in a good way. It is amazing that someone could write such an irresponsible paragraph and attribute it to a paper which clearly doesn’t make or support these claims.

The very title of Dr. Hyman’s post (Autism Research: Breakthrough Discovery on the Causes of Autism) is in error. The study makes no claims about the causes of autism. Dr. Hyman didn’t have to look any farther than the paper itself which clearly states as one of the limitations:

Sixth, inferences about a cause and effect association between mitochondrial dysfunction and typical autism cannot be made in a cross-sectional study.

Given this, we can also throw out Dr. Hyman’s wild claim that the study’s authors “discovered a profound and serious biological underpinning of autism”.

Since it is already clear that Dr. Hyman is using the paper to promote his own ideas, regardless of the facts in the paper, I won’t posit as to why he claims that the mitochondrial dysfunction is “acquired”, or that this is due to “damage” to mitochondria. The paper does not support either of these conclusions as fact.

He makes the claim that “These disturbances in energy metabolism were not due to genetic mutations, which is often seen in mitochondrial problems, but a condition the children studied acquired in utero or after birth.”

I am unsure how Dr. Hyman reached this conclusion. The paper notes differences in the mtDNA of many of the children studied. It does not provide evidence as to when or how these genetic differences arose.

Table 3 clearly shows the genetic measures the MIND Institute researchers used. Question the method as you may (or some experts have), there are differences in the mtDNA. The methodology doesn’t allow one to state if these difference were present at birth or not.

The MIND Institute hosts an interview with Prof. Giulivi
At about 3:30 into Prof. Giulivi’s interview, she states clearly that they can not conclude if the mitochondrial dysfunction they claim causes autism or is a result of it.

It is hard for me to decide if Dr. Hyman is more irresponsible than David Kirby or if it is the other way around. David Kirby was certainly doing some self promotion, but his impact was largely as a publicist for the autism-as-vaccine-injury groups like SafeMinds and Generation Rescue. Dr. Hyman is clearly focused on promoting his own services as a practitioner of alternative medicine.

The problem is that in the end, rather than being a leader in treatment, as Dr. Hyman presents himself, such irresponsible actions hinder advancement.

The Huffington Post: Featuring bad science, facile reasoning since 2005

14 Dec

That’s the title of a new blog post by Seth Mnookin, author of “The Panic Virus“. The title is spot on (and could be the the title of a book in its own right): The Huffington Post: Featuring bad science, facile reasoning since 2005.

Seth Mnookin took a look at unscientific thinking that can lead to dangerous results. Not surprisingly, he found that the anti-vaccine movement and the autism-vaccine discussion in particular made an excellent core for his book. In his first blog piece related to Panic Virus, Mr. Mnookin takes a look at how the Huffington Post reported a recent study on mitochondrial dysfunction and autism. The Huffington Post piece, authored by Mark Hyman, made claims well beyond those supported by the paper itself.

A brief quote by Mr. Mnookin:

If you’re confused as to why The Huffington Post would run Hyman’s piece — well, I have my theories, but suffice it to say that the site arguably features more scientific quackery than any other mainstream media outlet.

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