Professor Richard Lathe. Brain, Autism and Environment Part II: Strong Convictions

26 Aug

In my previous post on this subject I tackled the shortcomings in the Porph study and Professor Lathe’s reliance on extremely haphazard science. I also touched on his strange reluctance to publish _all_ associated data relating to that study and his peculiar relationship with co-author and DAN! doctor Lorene Amet. I also reported on how Lathe conceded that several key aspects of his theory relied on unverified science – notably the Holmes et al paper.

In this post I’ll be discussing key aspects of Lathe’s book ‘Autism, Brain and Environment’ and how they do not hold up to scrutiny.

The central theory of the book is that we are experiencing something Lathe calls ‘New Phase Autism’ which is a new type of genetically based, environmentally triggered autism – notably via metals such as tin, lead and mercury. His hypothesis states that some people have a genetic predisposition which, when exposed to environmental insults, reveals occult phenotypes.

There are two main supporting arguments that Lathe attempts to marshal to support this hypothesis.

1) Prevalence.

2) Limbic system ‘damage’. Lathe makes strong use of the Limbic system because a) it governs socialisation and b) its (to some degree)

Lets be clear, without these arguments, Lathe’s entire hypothesis falls. Without an ‘epidemic’ there is no reason to suspect a new type of metal influenced autism and without strong science to support the autism/limbic system hypothesis there is no reason to _assume_ a connection here either.

We know from Mike’s sterling work that the prevalence issue was very selectively presented and only utilised data that supported Lathe’s hypothesis. The much more valid and pertinent data that did _not_ support Lathe’s hypothesis was ignored.

What I intend to do in this post is address the issue of limbic system involvement. Why Lathe argues for it and why his hypothesis rests on very shaky foundations.

On page 64, Lathe states:

….it is the limbic system which is believed to be centrally involved in the problems associated with ASD.

No paper is cited to support this opinion. No evidence is offered to show support for this belief.

Lathe discusses a number of papers that clearly establish a connection of some kind between the limbic regions of the brain and autism but none of these studies refer to the limbic _system_ being _central_ to ASD. Lathe himself points out the many issues with the techniques used to gain data in this area, noting that histological study of the post-mortem brain is restricted to those very few samples available. Imaging studies are also skewed towards the older and Asperger end of the spectrum and thus cannot be representative of the whole spectrum.

Nevertheless this does not stop Lathe from pronouncing that limbic damage is central to ASD. He attempts to prove this by seeing if:

ASD features are consistent with limbic dysfunction.

Lathe states that anxiety is closely associated with limbic dysfunction (p76) and then goes on to say that anxiety is often an accompaniment to ASD. But lets not forget that Lathe is centring the role of limbic damage around his hypothesis of ‘new phase autism’ – a new type of chemically and metal caused autism that results in ‘severe/kanners/classic’ autism. It’s interesting to note that as far as anxiety is concerned that:

ASD children are significantly more anxious than controls, but the severity of anxiety varied according to ASD subtype with *Asperger disorder exceeding PDD-NOS, and both exceeding autism proper* […] on the anxiety rating scale.

This does not shed any light on Lathe’s ‘new phase’ autism. Rather it shows that if we look at anxiety as a correlator of limbic damage and ASD, then AS and PDD-NOS are more closely related than ‘autism proper’.

Lathe next examines ‘desire for sameness’ (p76) saying that it is:

[characteristic of autism]…as noted in the clinical behavioral rating _”obsessive desire for sameness”_ employed by several researchers.

And yet once again, Lathe fails to cite these researchers or the work that showed them employing this rating, or in what context it was used. It should be noted that ‘desire for sameness’ forms no part of the DSM(IV) and there are no cites showing how common a desire for sameness actually is amongst autistic children, particularly children Lathe might judge to be part of his ‘new phase’ subgroup.

In fact the only clinical studies Lathe cites in this section are two studies on rats from 1964 and 1965 respectively. And yet when discussing a later study Lathe states (p100):

…it is perhaps unsafe to extrapolate too freely from rodents to humans.


In an odd contradiction, Lathe later goes on to describe sameness as the inverse of novelty which Lathe claims can be attributed to the hippocampus and amygdala – both components of the limbic system – and that lack of appreciation of novelty can be attributed to amygdala damage. He then cites an example he knows of where an autistic child (p77):

…seemingly failed to react to the presence of a film crew in the bath.

This seems a rather bizarre contradiction. On one hand Lathe claims that ASD can be characterised by an ‘obsessive desire for sameness’ and on the other hand that ASD kids are unfazed by large scale changes in routine. Both, surely, cannot be true.

Lathe next states that ‘deficit in recognition of facial emotions’ (p77) is a key component of ASD and limbic system damage. The evidence he cites is:

This is shared by *some* patients with frontotemporal dementia, *associated* with limbic atrophy and by *some* patients with schizophrenia where involvement of the…[components of the limbic system]…has long been *suspected*

In other words, its an educated guess. Might be right but might equally be wrong.

Social interaction is next on Lathe’s list which is one of the very few items on Lathe’s list which genuinely _is_ a defining feature of ASD. Lathe makes his case valiantly but freely admits that (p77):

Few satisfactory studies have been performed on humans

and once more falls back on rodent studies which (as we know) Lathe has strong reservations about. He also makes of use a study using monkeys and yet, as with rodents, Lathe later states (p82):

….it may not be easy to extrapolate from monkey to man.

Which begs the question of why this chapter relies so heavily on rodent and monkey studies?

Lathe next makes a central and common error regarding autism, stating that (p78):

Language delay is a central diagnostic feature of ASD.

This is not correct. Language delay is merely one of four possibilities encompassed under a criteria heading of ‘Impaired *communication*’. This is _not_ a trivial distinction. Especially when we recall that this must all fit within the umbrella on Lathe’s ‘new phase autism’.

Lathe next tackles seizures, stating that seizures are recorded in up to 30% of autistic people (p79). However, we must again remember that Lathe is attempting to tie this in to his ‘new phase autism’ and his subsequent discussion of how autistic adults have a continued level of seizure (around 25%) this would indicate that seizures are not new to autism and hence cannot be part of Lathe’s ‘new phase autism’.

Sensory deficits is next on Lathe’s list. He starts off by stating what may well be uncontested fact – that hearing deficits (using Lathe’s words) are present in less than 9% of the autistic population, visual impairments in less than 24% and a lack of response to painful stimuli ‘has been noted’ in a 1999 study and given at rates of 7 in 18 in a study from the 1970’s.

However, Lathe freely admits that there is little to no research to tie in sensory processing and the limbic system, limply noting one study on monkeys. A subject group we will remember Lathe has reservations about.

Lathe next looks at stereotypy and repetitive/compulsive behaviours, correctly noting that this is a diagnostic feature of ASD. However, Lathe then goes on to state:

To this one must add alteration between a restricted range of activities…..This behavior is consistent with limbic damage.

As before when Lathe makes this bold assertion he does so without any evidence. No cites are made in support of this apparently imperative addition and it does not appear anywhere in the DSM(IV). It seems that this imperative addition is only imperative to establishing a link between a hypothetical ‘new phase’ type of ASD and limbic damage.

Lathe devotes a whole chapter to GI disturbances which is outside the scope of this particular post suffice it to say that that chapter contains frankly embarrassing references to unpublished work from Krigsman and cites as a valid reference of science.

In this chapters concluding pages, Lathe cites a study that he says (p83):

Causally link limbic damage to autistic behaviour.

In fact, he says there are seven but he only references one so its hard to place much faith in the others. The one referenced paper is over thirty years old.

Lathe then attempts to wrap up his case (p85 – 86):

behaviors associated with limbic damage resemble autism in a long list of different categories.

Thats a possibility but as we’ve seen, Lathe’s supporting evidence is flawed on numerous levels.

1) Over reliance on animal studies. A flaw Lathe makes note of himself.
2) Reliance on very old science.
3) Misrepresentation of the ASD diagnostic criteria. Theories should fit the known facts. The known facts should not need to be twisted to make a theory work.
4) Lathe is attempting to make a case for a new metal/chemically caused type of autism. A lot of his cited science relies on adult subjects born well before the time period Lathe needs to concentrate on.

Second, the limbic brain is consistently abnormal (in ASD).

Definitely interesting but yet again argues _against_ new phase autism, not in support of it. If limbic damage is _consistently_ abnormal in ASD then why the insistence on limbic damage being supportive of ‘new phase autism’? Remember that a lot of Lathe’s cites references adult autistic people born and diagnosed long before the time frame Lathe targets as the birth epoch of his ‘new phase autism’.

12 Responses to “Professor Richard Lathe. Brain, Autism and Environment Part II: Strong Convictions”

  1. Ms Clark August 26, 2006 at 09:25 #

    I’m glad you pointed out, basically, that the most widely cited post mortem autism studies are heavily populated by pre-“new-wave” autistics…. No, it’s not “new-wave”… “new-tsunami”? New-trainwreck autism? New-age? No, I had to go back and look, it’s “new phase.” Lathe might get together with Olmsted, he’s good at coining autism terms, Olmsted coined, “hard-core” autism. Olmsted is also an “autism researcher” wannabe who knows how to throw together something “truthy” to pander to the public’s shallow knowledge of science.

    I totally don’t understand why people want to ignore the evidence that there has been a high and stable rate of autism. Real, “epidemics” are visible not invisilble and silent.. that’s but the “autism epidemic” needs tons of advertising to make it seem plausible.

    Poor Dr. Lathe, first he leaves his post at the University, then his book is damned with faint praise by one of the autism heavy-hitters in the prestigious journal “Nature.” Maybe he could become an editor of “Medical Veritas.” No, maybe not… there’s always JAPandS, and he could go on the black helicopter/tinfoil hat speaking circuit, but then the tin thing might be a problem…

  2. mike stanton August 26, 2006 at 11:03 #

    When you consider how many references there are at the back of the book it is curious to note those crucial areas that are not referenced adequately.

    I found this very curious.
    “Damage to the limbic brain fulfils the three key criteria of plausibility, necessity, and, most probably sufficiency. Limbic damage is therefore likely to cause ASD.”

    Lathe is claiming that everyone with autism has damage to their limbic system (necessity) and that everyone with damage to their limbic system probably has autism, (probable sufficiency).

    As I understand it, Lathe is saying that the presence of limbic damage is a necessary but not sufficient condition for autism. In order to demonstrate sufficiency it would be necessary to demonstrate that everyone with damage to their limbic brain was autistic. This does not support the statement that Limbic damage is likely to cause ASD. That is likely if and only if it is likely that all people with damaged limbic brains are also autistic.

  3. mike stanton August 26, 2006 at 11:36 #

    Another thing that annoys me is that it is never clear when Lathe is using ASD whether he is referring to all autism, DSM-IV-R autistic disorder, his own New Phase Autism or something else. I am reminded of Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass.

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

  4. laurentius-rex August 26, 2006 at 15:20 #

    Well that cannot be because the only words that mean anything are ones I use to mean what I want them to, never mind anyone else 🙂

    In my presentation of a linguistic deconstruction of the Social Model of disability, I intend to cite Charles Dodgson and some of his annotators because Dodgson aka Ludovicus Carolus knew precisely what he was doing in those famous works as a deconstruction of language and meaning. In my opinion the Alice books stand alongside Tractatus Logico Positivus as valid philosophical tomes and I am sure Derrida must be agreeing with me in his grave 🙂

  5. Joseph August 26, 2006 at 17:06 #

    Lathe next tackles seizures, stating that seizures are recorded in up to 30% of autistic people (p79). However, we must again remember that Lathe is attempting to tie this in to his ‘new phase autism’ and his subsequent discussion of how autistic adults have a continued level of seizure (around 25%) this would indicate that seizures are not new to autism and hence cannot be part of Lathe’s ‘new phase autism’.

    In fact, for his “new phase” autism to make sense, it would have to be a nearly seizure-free condition in order to explain the California data, namely sharp drops in the prevalence of epilepsy among autistics over time.

  6. Ms Clark August 26, 2006 at 19:55 #

    Charles Lutwige Dodgson wrote so well because he was on the autism spectrum. OK, well, I say he was.

  7. Jannalou August 27, 2006 at 02:20 #

    Ms Clark, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was also an Anglican ‘PK’ and a bit of an opium addict. 😉 (I wrote a paper on him in high school and had to do an oral presentation; when I mentioned that he was the son of an Anglican Priest, my English teacher actually laughed, I think because he probably thought it was funny since I’m a PK too.)

    Anyway, on topic to the post, Kev! As I was reading this I thought this whole “limbic system” thing sounded a lot like what I’ve been reading (and writing) about in Greenspan’s The Growth of the Mind. (I’ve fixed the problem with the unreadable quotes on my blog, so feel free to check it out.) Greenspan’s theory seems to be that emotions and sensations are intrinsically tied together, and that without them being properly & fully developed, one cannot also develop intelligence.

    So, as I continue to read Greenspan’s book to discover if he believes those of us with “abnormal” (or lacking) emotional development to also be unintelligent (which I think he does, based on what I’ve read so far), I’d be interested to know if Lathe also considers limbic system damage to be intrinsic to the development (or lack of development) of intelligence?

  8. clone3g August 27, 2006 at 19:24 #

    Though there is little replication, structural abnormalities found in neurons of the limbic system don’t resemble the alterations observed in rodents exposed to various toxic metals.

    Toxins tend to kill neurons rather than cause an increase in cell density and size. That’s not to say prenatal exposure to assorted toxins can’t alter brain development but Lathe fails to make a case for any one cause.

    Imagine if the criminal justice system acted on such flimsy evidence.

  9. Gabesmom August 27, 2006 at 21:41 #

    Speaking on the topic of brain damage of one kind or another, I have yet to hear any credible theory put forth that adequately explains how a person whose mind has been so damaged (either through chemical exposure on an alternative means) can manage to excel in many areas even above and beyond same age NT peers. There are a lot of autistic children who also have very advanced skills in many areas (my own son is hyperlexic) and yet these skills are dismissed as being either present “in spite of” autism or explained away by one of my favorite theories de jour involving “excitotoxins” – chemicals that somehow have the ability to allow two year olds to read and write presumably. The medical professionals usually use the insulting terminology “splinter skills”, and have themselves not determined anyway to combine the “neurologically impaired” description of autism with these other innate abilities- at least not above and beyond the “idiot savant” syndrome. My son is neither an idiot nor a savant but a very complex individual- just like the rest of us. How does a damaged limbic system account for all of that complexity under Dr. Lathe’s theory, or is autism only about the alleged “deficits” and all other similarities amongst autistic individuals can be attributed to pure coincidence?

  10. Ms Clark August 27, 2006 at 23:45 #

    Yes, but it’s the really smart kids who are super susceptible to the toxins! Or their parents are really smart and go into chemistry jobs… or something. At any rate, the answer, no matter what the question is… take your kid, right away, to Lorene Amet’s DAN! clinic in Edinburgh. No, really. Oh, bring lots of cash. Umm, pounds sterling or whatever they spend in Edinburgh. If you’re bringing Yen or Kopeks, it’s ok, there are handy places to exchange them for pounds. Krugerrands will do.

  11. Mr.Rehab August 28, 2006 at 19:00 #

    Lathe’s research has led him to develop a theory that without the Moon, there would be no life on Earth. When life began, Earth orbited much more closely to the Moon than it does now, causing massive tides every few hours, which in turn caused rapid cycling of salinity levels on coastlines and may have driven the evolution of early DNA.

  12. KChew August 29, 2006 at 19:36 #

    And, Lathe ends his book by talking about the theory that the Roman empire ended due to lead poisoning……

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