Monkeying Around

16 May

Its IMFAR time again and over on Age of Autism (thanks to Kelli Ann Davies for this priceless hat tip) they’re getting all het-up:

The first research project to examine effects of the total vaccine load received by children in the 1990s has found autism-like signs and symptoms in infant monkeys vaccinated the same way. The study’s principal investigator, Laura Hewitson from the University of Pittsburgh, reports developmental delays, behavior problems and brain changes in macaque monkeys that mimic “certain neurological abnormalities of autism.”

Autism signs? Not just ‘autism? Research hasn’t linked vaccine load to autism?

I’d love to tell you more about this (and the other two accompanying studies on the same subject) but I can’t. Why? Well, because they’re not actually _studies_ as such. They’re poster presentations.

So, what’s a poster presentation? Well, its exactly what it sounds like – its a researcher, making a poster of their research and standing beside it for an hour, hoping other people find it enough of interest to look at. A few popular ones are sometimes asked to be presented orally. There are usually at least a hundred different poster presentations at a conference. It mostly depends on teh size of the conference hall.

Age of Autism’s Dan Olmsted says:

Poster presentations must go through a form of peer review before they are presented at the conference; the papers have not yet appeared in a scientific journal.

One of those two statements is true. The other is sadly not. Here are ‘the rules’ for poster presentations at IMFAR 2008.

Posterboards will have a display area 194cm wide X 84cm high. We suggest that you produce posters in A0 landscape format (120cm wide X 84cm high). Posters will be fixed to boards using sticky-back Velcro that will be supplied on site. Poster Numbers 1-60 will be located in the Champagne Terrace room, and Numbers 61-120 will be located in the Bordeaux room. In the programme a time is allocated for each poster presenter to be standing by their poster.

The page goes on to provide some helpful tips such as: ‘Less is more’ (probably no worries on that score) and ‘Use an appropriate font’. Hopefully, the team will have taken onboard the services a real typography expert such as Dr Paul King of CoMeD.

So – I can tell you next to nothing about these poster presentations. The good folk at AoA seemed oddly reluctant to link through to the abstracts.

However, I can tell you a little about the authors. The primary author seems to be Laura Hewiston of Pittsburgh University. She is registered on that page as a DAN! Doctor. She (I think its the same person) also appears here (see 953) and here.

Also listed as an author according to AoA is one AJ Wakefield. Enough said about that!

Lastly, is Steve Walker who did a poster presentation at an IMFAR in the past (can’t recall which one) which also appeared to offer support for the MMR hypothesis. Oddly, that poster presentation never made it into any kind of peer reviewed journal.

Best comment on Age of Autism comes courtesy of David Ayoub who begins with:

someone slap me!

I tell you, if that man didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.

45 Responses to “Monkeying Around”

  1. Ms. Clark May 16, 2008 at 23:15 #

    😀 (Cracking up here.)

    The monkey study is hysterical. It would have us believe that about 77% of kids who got the 1990s vaccine schedule ended up autistic.

    And this after the PSC has told us that the number of humans that became autistic from thimerosal is about 1 in 10,000. And thimerosal only causes “clearly regressive autism”. So did they find “clearly regressive” monkeys? And how does that work with all those monkeys getting autism from vaccines?

  2. Joseph May 16, 2008 at 23:32 #

    I take it this is essentially Hornig et al. Version 2.0. How long before the MIND throws money at a replication attempt that I can only presume will also fail? Oh wait, that’s assuming it makes it to a journal.

    There’s no abstract at all? I bet the methodology is rather interesting.

  3. Sullivan May 16, 2008 at 23:36 #

    So, the lead author is an autism mom and, quite possibly, her son was a patient of Dr. Wakefield?

    I gather from the story that her son wasn’t exactly ‘clearly’ regressive. “He was always slow to develop, but always reached the milestones within the time allotted”

    “When Joshua was 2, Hewitson’s boss was recruited to the University of Pittsburgh at about the same time the couple began to despair of the level of services for autistic kids in Oregon”

    Dang, if there was just someone in Oregon willing to really go to bat to get better services for autistic kids. Could have made a difference in this kid’s life.

    Thanks for linking to the story. I look forward to reading Dr. Minshew’s work. That sounds really interesting to me.

  4. Ms. Clark May 16, 2008 at 23:37 #

    I wonder if the scientists involved would be willing to share their methodology or if it’s all gonna be “top secret”. Maybe Kelli Ann Davis could do a “psst” comment here when the abstract, at least, is out.

  5. Kev May 16, 2008 at 23:38 #

    There may well be an abstract Joseph – its just that (if one does exist) for some reason AoA didn’t want to discuss it or link to it. Wonder why.

  6. Kev May 16, 2008 at 23:43 #

    How long before the MIND throws money at a replication…

    First time I read that I thought you said ‘throws mon*k*ey’.

  7. Sullivan May 16, 2008 at 23:53 #

    I guess you guys don’t read AoA, but they read LBRB…

    AoA has a post with the abstracts up.

    In a very strange twist, they put a copyright disclaimer on it. Of course, the copyright holder is likely INSAR, but AoA has a habit of posting copyrighted images.

  8. Kev May 16, 2008 at 23:54 #

    NOTE: Abstracts now available (see? They do listen 😉 ) – go to AoA.

  9. brstpathdoc May 16, 2008 at 23:57 #

    Maybe the peer reviewer is also a monkey. Then it’s all kosher.

  10. Kev May 17, 2008 at 00:02 #

    I think that – as its just a poster presentation – copyright would still reside with the authors.

    Both AoA and myself can easily claim ‘fair use’ though:

    …the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

  11. Bev May 17, 2008 at 00:12 #

    Are we sure they weren’t using any shampoo on those monkeys? That could have skewed the results, you know.

  12. MJ May 17, 2008 at 00:27 #

    “The primary author seems to be Laura Hewiston of Pittsburgh University. She is registered on that page as a DAN! Doctor”

    She works for UPMC ( not for the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), these two entities are related but not the same. Pitt is the university. UPMC is a medical organization that runs a large number of hospitals and other medical facilities in addition to doing research.

    She is affiliated with Magee’s which is the arguably the premier women’s hospital in Pittsburgh which, considering the medical community here, is saying something.

    Or in other words, she would not be working where she does and doing junk science.

    She does not appear to be an MD so calling her a “DAN! Doctor” is probably not accurate either.

  13. Joseph May 17, 2008 at 00:28 #

    Someone explain this to me. Why is the exposed group N=13 and the unexposed group N=3? Is this common methodology in vaccination studies that use primates? What’s the rationale for it?

    It would appear to me that the groups aren’t randomized, simply by reading the abstract. By what means were the groups selected? Did Dr. Wakefield go, “I like these 3 for the unexposed group” ? I made that up, but obviously we just don’t know. Was there matching of variables? There’s no mention of the researchers being blinded at all. On the surface the methodology appears weak, but I guess we’ll have to wait for a full publication to know these things.

  14. Tom May 17, 2008 at 00:36 #

    This passes for autism research? What a shame.

  15. Ms. Clark May 17, 2008 at 00:36 #

    “survival reflexes, tests of color discrimination and reversal, and learning sets”

    How is this autism? Is it monkey generic learning disability? Are they saying that vaccines cause generic learning disability in monkeys? I don’t think there’s any evidence of a general rise in LD in this country following a change in the vax schedule in the 1980’s-90s. In fact there was a drop in “specific learning disability” and MR that followed the change in the vaccine schedule, it appears that those kids were reassigned, more or less to the autism category.

  16. Kelli Ann Davis May 17, 2008 at 00:38 #


    The researchers were blinded.

    Kelli Ann Davis

  17. Kelli Ann Davis May 17, 2008 at 00:40 #

    Seriously though, I was just giving you all the heads up.

    I gotta go. You all have fun with this….

    Kelli Ann

  18. Joseph May 17, 2008 at 00:46 #

    The researchers were blinded.

    I assume you have inside knowledge of this, Kelli. I scanned the abstracts again, and I didn’t see any mention of this.

  19. Ms. Clark May 17, 2008 at 01:17 #

    Nice to see that Kelli Ann takes this seriously.

  20. Matt May 17, 2008 at 01:19 #

    Ms. Davis (and others) probably want to see what the arguments against are going to be like. I’ll oblige with a few that come to mind quickly.

    Ms. Clark hit on one of the main ones–the behaviors mentioned are not autistic.

    The question, then, is how many behaviors were tested? How many that might be relevant to autism did not reach statistical significance? Given the small sample numbers, on what measures were there false ‘positives’, where the vaccinated animals appeared to do better than their controls?

    Were there differences between the animals that were biopsied and those that were not? If these are all the same set of monkeys, then 7 of the vaccinated group were biopsied and 6 were not. If there were two separate groups, how did they compare?

    This last is not just an offhand question. Biopsies are not pleasant, and one imagines that this has a big effect in the short lives of these animals.

    RNA analysis was performed on the biopsies. I don’t see any note that measled virus (vaccine strain or otherwise) was detected. Were they looking and failed? It would be astounding if this group didn’t test for measles RNA.

    If I may quote from Mr. Olmsted:

    We have found many significant differences in the GI tissue gene expression profiles between vaccinated and unvaccinated animals.” Numerous scientific studies, as well as many parents, report severe GI ailments in children with regressive autism.

    Those two sentences are very weakly linked. Differences in gene expression are not “GI ailments”.

    Unless there is more in the poster than the abstract, that is pretty much a non-result in autism.

    These are only based on a quick view of the abstracts. One must assume that some much stronger questions were heard in the halls by the people who saw the talk.

    Given that the bahaviors are not tied to autism, this appears to be more of a ‘vaccines are bad’ than ‘vaccines cause autism’ paper. That is not a brush I would like the autism community painted with, please. Of course, GR, TACA and their spokespeople have refused to separate themselves from the openly anti-vaccine segments of their membership, so my hopes are not likely to be met in the near future.

  21. Joseph May 17, 2008 at 01:34 #

    Given that the bahaviors are not tied to autism, this appears to be more of a ‘vaccines are bad’ than ‘vaccines cause autism’ paper.

    Right, in fact, if we were to take the results at face value, it would seem that most or all children who are vaccinated are impacted neurologically. They didn’t find a small, especially susceptible subgroup who became autistic. With N=13 vs N=3, and a statistically significant difference, what this essentially predicts is that nearly every vaccinated person is learning disabled to some extent.

  22. Ms. Clark May 17, 2008 at 01:44 #

    If these abstracts ever get published (hopefully in something legit with a real peer review) it would be interesting to see if they cite Wakefield, Geier, Hornig, Deth, Adams, Haley, some deceased scientist… the usual gang. They all agree with each other, which is cool for them.

  23. Schwartz May 17, 2008 at 02:11 #


    I completely agree with your approach to poster presentations as I know very well that abstracts and conclusions can be very misleading.

    A couple points though:

    Your link to poster presenter rules does not invalidate the comment that the poster presentations are mini-peer reviewed. It looks very much like you are reading rules for posters who have already been approved to attend the conference. I suspect there are rules involved in applying to be a poster for such a conference, and I would not expect those to be posted on the link you provided at all. This is a pretty common practise for conferences to give instructions to pre-approved attendees.

    Additionally, I might make a note that I remember the IOM review in 2004 referencing a poster presentation as part of their evidence. If I also remember correctly it was never published in a peer reviewed journal that I could find.

  24. Ms. Clark May 17, 2008 at 02:21 #

    At the IMFAR in Sacramento I talked to a teacher from somewhere in central California who brought a poster on some observation he had made in his work with special ed kids. His poster looked like it was made by a junior high kid and featured drawings made by his students. I liked it. I talked to the guy for a while, but it wasn’t what one normally thinks of as autism science.

    I suspect they’ll take anything that sounds like it might be legit, first come first served.

  25. Albert May 17, 2008 at 04:54 #

    Could it be that the monkeys were freaked out by the number of shots they got. So every time the investigator came into the room they ran to the corner, whereas the 3 monkeys that didn’t get the shots were less frightened?

    Is anyone really taking this seriously?

    Until it’s published — which I really doubt will ever happen — it’s good to remember what a poster session is. It is less than a publication, and less than a conference paper. The standards for accepting a poster are very low indeed. To refer to a poster as going through some sort of peer review is a distortion.

  26. Joseph May 17, 2008 at 05:03 #

    Could it be that the monkeys were freaked out by the number of shots they got. So every time the investigator came into the room they ran to the corner, whereas the 3 monkeys that didn’t get the shots were less frightened?

    The unexposed monkeys did get saline apparently. And if whoever gave the shots was blinded, as Kelli Ann claims, that should not be one of the glaring issues of they study.

  27. kristina May 17, 2008 at 07:00 #

    I’m teaching research methods to college students next spring and this “poster thread” (and autism “research”) is giving me plenty of material for at least part of a class.

    The students, btw, have to give a presentation of their research at the end of the school year and we _don’t_ require, or encourage, them to use posters.

  28. Kev May 17, 2008 at 07:52 #

    Schwartz, I respect your POV but I can’t seriously think that you really believe that a poster presentation is in any way peer reviewed.

    Here is the abstract submission process. The following seems to the sole scientific requirement:

    IMFAR is a scientific meeting and only presentations based primarily on empirical data will be accepted.

    No one’s going to argue that these abstracts contains references to empirical data. But that is _not_ an indicator of quality and nor is the recognition they contain references to empirical data in any way a ‘kind of’ or ‘mini’ peer review.

  29. Ms. Clark May 17, 2008 at 09:20 #

    I keep trying to think of a good “sick puppy” joke inspired by the sick monkeys blog. I haven’t got one yet…

    Instead I’ll dedicate this to ….

  30. Catherina May 17, 2008 at 09:59 #

    well, I see the senior author of the first abstract is a certain “A. Wakefield”, who may be the same as the first author of the second abstract (if the “Thoughtful House” affiliation is anything to go by), and lo, said A. Wakefield is the senior author on the last abstract as well.

    No wonder the study design is so crappy. I got my abstracts off the Dr. Sears Vaccine Discussion Board:

  31. Catherina May 17, 2008 at 10:20 #

    urgh, I just went to the AoA site – some of the comments are truely disturbing in their violent phantasies.

  32. Jon May 17, 2008 at 14:09 #

    Re poster presentations, doesn’t whether there’s any kind of peer review depend on the conference? Some conferences do have a form of peer review – with the organising committee reviewing short papers based on poster presentations prior to the conference, and publishing these in the conference procedures. In others, the closest thing to peer review is some of the organisers looking at the abstract and thinking ‘that looks interesting’ 😉 I’m not sure what’s the case with IMFAR…

    If the study was blinded, it’s a shame that the authors neglected to mention this (and how it was implemented): this is a pretty important detail. Also interesting that they standardise thimerosal dose, but take a number of measurements before/after thimerosal-free MMR – has the MMR dose being standardised, too?

  33. kristina May 17, 2008 at 15:50 #

    There is a kind of review process with a poster presentation—by whoever sets up the conference schedule and program—-and of course a presented would be expected to research and work with advisors. But after the conference, it’d be up to the presented to turn the poster into an actual article, with more results. Not the same as presenting a paper—-and, of course, not the same as being asked to present a paper.

  34. kristina May 17, 2008 at 16:07 #

    “one should understand that these abstracts were poster presentations. In the biomedical field, poster presentations are the lowest form of “publication” of one’s data.”

    Orac said it.

  35. Schwartz May 17, 2008 at 17:21 #


    Hey, I can’t say whether it was peer-reviewed or not. I have no idea what the term “form of peer review” actually means — and I personally would put as much credence as you in it.

    I agree completely with your main point on this topic, I was merely pointing out that evidence from poster instructions proves nothing as it wouldn’t contain the detailed criteria for participation.

    I strongly support your position that until the information is actually fully published, we can’t evaluate it’s quality regardless of empiric data or not.

    On the same train of thought, it’s a little premature for some people to discard it by the same logic — unless a critical flaw is immediately evident without reading the details.

  36. Schwartz May 17, 2008 at 17:41 #


    I put little credence in Orac’s writing, although he certainly provides entertaining reading.

    Perhaps he should also point that the IOM used as evidence a poster presentation (1 of only 3 epidemiological studies) in their 2004 conference conclusions(Miller 2004). Even more ironic, I can’t find any trace of that study ever having been published — I guess that speaks to its quality.

    It’s a pretty typical hypocritical Orac strategy to point out the low quality of posters only when the poster takes a position against his while ignoring the same tactic used by the IOM who holds the same position as him. Beware of attributing much more than entertainment to Orac’s writing.

    If he has any comments it should be along the lines of those here. Posters don’t provide enough information to determine quality so we should withhold judgement until we see the details and can do a proper evaluation.

  37. A lot happened in 2004... May 17, 2008 at 18:27 #

    As to Elizabeth Miller’s 2004 publication.

    The IOM in their 2004 report noted:

    United Kingdom. Miller (2004) presented to the committee a cohort study that examined whether certain NDDs, including autism, are related to exposure to TCV’s. Regarding this study, forthcoming in the journal Pediatrics, the committee focused only on the analyses examining the autism outcome. The study was based on data from the U.K.’s General Practice Research Database (GPRD), which is similar to the U.S. VSD; About 500 general practices in the United Kingdom contribute data to the GPRD, which is about 5.7 percent of the population. The study’s data cover 1988 to 1999 and include patient consultations, referrals, and vaccine information.

    This was to be published, as noted in the IOM report, in Pediatrics. I believe you will find it below:

    Even more ironic, to borrow a phrase, it wasn’t a poster. It was a presentation made directly to the IOM while they were deliberating.

    “Miller (2004) presented to the committee…”

    I guess the search is ended.

  38. notmercury May 17, 2008 at 22:20 #

    Seriously though, I was just giving you all the heads up.

    I gotta go. You all have fun with this….

    Fun? Do you think it’s fun seeing idiots trying to define our children with shitty research? Do you think we enjoy seeing our kids compared to monkeys that were sacrificed and tortured for no good reason?

    You don’t want to find out why your kid is autistic, you want to prove to the world what you think you already know. Real fun.

  39. Kev May 17, 2008 at 23:04 #

    MJ – did you even click the link? I would imagine based on your comment that you didn’t.

  40. Schwartz May 18, 2008 at 02:15 #

    A lot happened in 2004,

    LOL, thank you for that. I looked into this twice now (I have the IOM information) and couldn’t find it twice.

    It looks like they changed the name and that’s why I couldn’t find it. The original title from the IOM document was: “Thimerosal and Developmental Problems Including Autism”

  41. Jon May 18, 2008 at 14:09 #

    As far as poster presentations go – I appreciate that these are less prestigious than full paper presentations. However – while this isn’t the norm – you do sometimes get conferences where posters are published as short papers in the proceedings: I was reading through a few on databases just the other day… I suspect that this doesn’t happen with IMFAR, though?

    Anyway, given that this vaccine research is only going to be given space as a poster presentation, it certainly seems that those reviewing the abstracts didn’t view it as anything massively significant: if they expected this research to have a large impact on the field, one presumes that they would have made space for them to be full paper presentations.

  42. Orac May 18, 2008 at 16:56 #

    It’s a pretty typical hypocritical Orac strategy to point out the low quality of posters only when the poster takes a position against his while ignoring the same tactic used by the IOM who holds the same position as him. Beware of attributing much more than entertainment to Orac’s writing.

    As with your writing, which illuminates little, other than your bias.

    Regarding citing poster presentations, one has to look at it in the context of the other evidence. Citing a single poster presentation is pretty weak evidence. However, including a poster presentation as a citation with a lot of citations of publications in good, peer-reviewed journals is not a problem, because then the poster is simply a small piece of evidence. Moreover, if the poster was ultimately published in a peer-reviewed journal, then the article should be cited instead of the poster.


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