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Brain waves :The autism link

MagazineApril 2009 (Vol. 20 Issue 1)Brain waves :The autism link

Mobile phones-and wireless technology in general-have been very much in the press recently, with some reports suggesting serious dangers from the technology, and others dismissing the problem as imaginary

Mobile phones-and wireless technology in general-have been very much in the press recently, with some reports suggesting serious dangers from the technology, and others dismissing the problem as imaginary. For example, people who claimed to be electrosensitive apparently couldn't detect mobile-phone signals when put to the test (see box below).

On 9 November, however, a bomb-shell of a paper was published that raised the temperature of the issue to boiling point (J Aust Coll NutrEnviron Med, 2007; 26: 3-7). Wireless technology, it claimed, could be a major aggravating factor in autism.

That claim was made even more explosive by linking wireless radia-tion with heavy-metal poisoning, thus re-igniting the whole debate over whether or not vaccination can lead to autism.

WDDTY obtained an advance copy of this landmark study and this, together with an interview with its co-author, US-based scientist Dr George Carlo, forms the basis ofthis Special Report.

A tireless wireless campaigner

George Carlo is a controversial figure, and a major thorn in the side of the mobile-phone industry. Ironically enough, however, it was the wireless industry itself that propelled him from being a relatively obscure, albeit well-respected, epidemiologist to where he stands today: a world authority on the effects of wireless radiation, and a tireless campaigner against his former paymasters.

It all started in 1993, when the mobile-phone industry, with the support of several US government health agencies, gave Carlo and his team $28 million to investigate the safety of mobile phones and their transmission masts. Initially, he found no significant health threats from wireless technology. But, by February 1999, he had changed his mind, having by then seen evidence of damage to DNA, an increased risk of cancers of the eye, and certain types of brain tumours (see WDDTY vol 17 no 7).

Since then, Dr Carlo has devel-oped what is probably the most sophisticated biological explanation of how wireless radiation can damage cells (see WDDTY vol 18 no 5, pages 20-1). In short, his theory is that 'information-carrying radiowaves' (ICRWs) in the low-hertz frequencies specific to mobile phones and their masts can interfere with normal cell function, causing the cell membrane to shut down in self-defence. Thiscan have disastrous effects, he says, one of which is the buildup of toxins within the cell.It was this theory that led him to autism.

The heavy-metal connection

In the last few years, a number of radical teatments for autism have been based on the idea that the condition is caused, or at least exacerbated, by the buildup of toxic heavy metals within the cells of the body. The non-medical press has tended to report this subject only in the context of the MMR vaccine controversy intitiated by British gastroenterologist Dr Andrew Wake-field when his research linked the vaccine to autism (see WDDTY vol 11 no 6). The heavy-metal connection is based on the theory that use of the mercury-derived preservative thimerosal in vaccines is the causeof autism.

However, there is now growing evidence that the autism-heavy metals issue may reach far beyond vaccines (see box, this page). This is because other metals besides mercury also appear to be involved.

Clinics have been springing up across the US, offering to treat autism by removing heavy metals from the body. The principal detoxification process used is chela-tion therapy, a technique that is often described by its detractors as controversial, but which has, in fact, been a well-recognized way to remove toxic metals from the body for more than 50 years.

Originally employed to treat industrial workers who came into contact with lead, chelation is an officially approved detox treatment for lead poisoning-even for children. DMSA (dimercaptosuccinic acid) is the most commonly employed chelating chemical, as it binds with all heavy metals in the blood, and comes with a good safety record.

How successful has chelation been in autism? One of the first doctorsto experiment with the therapy was Dr Amy Holmes, a now-retired Louisiana physician. She put 85 young autistic children though a four-month chelation treatment and, by January 2001, a clear pattern had emerged: the younger the child, the more the benefit. In the under-six age group, 35 per cent showed "marked" improvement and 39 per cent "moderate", with only 11 per cent of the children failing to respond at all.

However, these figures dropped dramatically in the six-to-12 age group, with only 4 per cent showing marked improvement, and 28 per cent achieving moderate benefit.

By age 18, the treatment had no significant effects whatsoever. "We have noticed a large dependence of excretion on age of patient, with the younger patients excreting much more mercury than the older patients," says Dr Holmes. "We think this difference in rapidity of excre-tion may explain the differences in response between the various age groups" (Holmes AS. Chelation of Mercury for the Treatment of Autism. Published online5 March 2002).

However, age may not be the only reason why metals fail to be excreted. Tamara Mariea is a clinical nutri-tionist who has used chelation therapy to treat autistic children at her Internal Balance clinic in Nashville, TN. Over the last seven years, she has treated more than 500 autistic children, with similar results to those of Dr Holmes. She, too, has found that some children fail to respond to the therapy because, again, it fails to clear metals from the body.

The heavy penny drops

Around three years ago, she met Dr George Carlo-and the proverbial penny dropped. They both were asking the same question: could the electromagnetic (EM) fields from wireless technology be causing the children's cell membranes to shut down, thus trapping the heavy metals within the cells, preventing them from being excreted and cleared from the body?

They chose first to test the theory on a 10-year-old boy with severe autism. For seven years, his parents had tried a variety of treatments, including chelation therapy, but nothing worked.

Carlo and Mariea decided on a drastic intervention programme designed to remove as many toxinsas possible from the boy's environ-ment. His home was turned into a toxin-free zone: chemical pollutants were banned, and mobiles, wireless devices and almost all electrical equipment were removed. Mariea's clinic, too, was also turned into an EM-free fortress, with all wireless technology forbidden, and electrical equipment shielded.

Gradually, as the boy was exposed to the EM-free environments, his hair and stool analyses began to show heavy metals being excreted from his body. His autistic condition was also considerably improved: from having only been able to utter the words 'yes' and 'no', he now began to speak. "The noise has gone from my head," he said to his parents. Buoyed by that result, Marieathen put 20 other autistic children through a similar regime, which mainly involved staying in the clinic's EM-free environment for four hours, two or three times a week. Remark-ably, after three months, heavy metals began to be cleared from the children's bodies-but not through chelation. It happened entirely spontaneously. "It is noteworthy that provocation doses of chelating agents were not used. The clinical goal was to assess the subjects' capacity to detoxify and clear heavy metals on their own," reported Carlo and Mariea in their joint 9 November paper (J Aust Coll Nutr Environ Med, 2007; 26: 3-7).

The study suggests that removing autistic children from EM fields has the same effect as chelation in removing heavy metals-a stunning conclusion which attracts the obvious criticism of being based on what is essentially anecdotal evidence. Carlo is the first to acknowledge that their study was not a proper clinical trial and, thus, cannot account for placebo effects.

However, there are intriguing data in their results which are difficult to ascribe to a placebo response. Carlo observed that the rate of metal excretion closely followed their molecular weights. He noted that the first metals to be eliminated were beryllium, aluminium and copper, followed by antimony, mercury, lead and, finally, uranium-in other words, from low to high molecular weights.

"This time- and molecular weight-dependent finding was determined post-hoc," says Carlo. "There was no operational knowledge of this by the subjects, parents or clinicians." This makes a placebo effect unlikely.There was also a difference in

the way the children responded to treatment. Some cleared more aluminium, others more beryllium. "This suggests there are possibly two categories of injured children: those exposed as a result of transgen-erational accumulation, and those exposed as a result of transgesta-tional accumulation during fetal development," he says.

Another plank in the Carlo-Mariea argument is epidemiology. Over the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in autism. In the 1970s, about one child in every 10,000 was diagnosed as autistic. By the late 1980s, however, that figure had begun to rise, and the upward curve has been climbing steeply ever since. Now, according to a February 2007 report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a staggering one in 150 children suffers from an autistic-spectrum disorder. "It seems we now have an autism epidemic afoot," says Carlo. He admits that this huge increase could be partly explained by higher rates of detection of the disorder and by mercury-based vaccines, but those two factors alone are not enough. The cause is more likely to be some major environmen-tal assault which, itself, is also exponentially on the rise. The most obvious candidate in his view is mobile-phone technology, which has shot up from low levels in 1990 to a status today where about three in every four people own a mobile phone.

"Every one of those millions of mobile phones is connected to masts, creating a mesh in the environment of ICRWs, which are virtually impossible for anyone to avoid-even fetuses in the womb," says Carlo.

"The mechanism appears to be this: children prone to autism have a biological deficiency in terms of methylation, meaning they can't clear heavy metals efficiently. External exposure to wireless radiation exacerbates that problem by closing down the cell membranes, further trapping the metals, disrupting intracellular communication and leading to the cascade of symptoms we see in autistic kids."

Protecting the future

However, this is not just a problem for the here-and-now-Carlo sees it extending into the future. His model of wireless radiation damage foresees long-term genetic damage, which was already presaged by a relatively unpublicized European Union report from three years ago, which found "gene mutations" in human cell cultures with levels of EM radiation below the current safety limits (Reflex, EU Contract: QLK4-CT-1999-01574, 31 May 2004).

"In both autism and electro-sensitivity in general, you have a genetic change induced by the environment," says Carlo. "When the cell membrane is chronically exposed, the membrane closes down; the messenger RNA then picks up that information, folding in a manner consistent with a closed membrane; this is transmit-ted to the DNA in the mitochondria and nucleus. When the cell divides in mitosis, the daughter cells have a closed cell-membrane configura-tion, and this is transmitted to the succeeding mitoses, resulting in an embedded genetic change."

Permanent cell damage may explain why chelation therapy sometimes fails to work in autistic children. "It's only speculation, but the autistic patients who clear their heavy metals and yet have no improvement in symptoms are those whose cell membranes remain closed," he says. "In such cases, chelation may actually worsen the damage, as the heavy metals can rip through the cell membrane."

Carlo's major concern is to prevent damage from mobile-phone technology in the future. He has begun a campaign called the Safe Wireless Initiative, primarily aimed at persuading policymakers to redesign the entire mobile-phone infrastructure and to develop shield technologies (see box above).

In the meantime, for autism in particular, he has some strong words of warning for mothers.

"We are very concerned about pregnant mothers," he says. "Dur-ing embryonic development, the fetus needs exposure to environ-mental challenges like microbes, as they help to develop the immune system. However, exposure to ICRWs doesn't enhance the immune system-it impedes it. It is not a good idea for pregnant women to be around these signals at all."

Tony Edwards

All in the mind?

Most scientists believe the hazards of mobile-phone radiation have been exaggerated, with some even claiming that those who claim to be adversely affected by the technology are self-deluded hypochondriacs. A major study, published in November, appears to support this view.

Psychologists at UK's University of Essex tested 44 people who had reported adverse symptoms from mobile phones, exposing them to simulated mobile mast transmissions in a double-blind test. The subjects could neither identify when the mast signals were on or off and showed no changes in heart rate, blood pressure or skin conductance when the signals were on.

Lead scientist Professor Elaine Fox avoided labelling the subjects' symptoms as imaginary or psychosomatic, but concluded: "It is now important to determine what other factors [than mobile-phone technology] could be causing these symptoms, so appropriate research studies and treatment strategies can be developed" (Environ Health Perspect, 2007; 115: 1603-8).

Electrosensitive campaigning groups have criticized the study on a number of counts: some subjects were too ill to participate, and others may have suffered adverse effects during travel to the research centre. Indeed, the physiological data suggest that the subjects were in a constantly aroused state, whether the mobile signals were on or off.

Dr George Carlo also believes that such provocation studies are probably doomed to failure: any kind of experimentation creates a powerful 'nocebo' effect. "Electrosensitive people will have a parasympathetic response to any perceived threat, as they have a strong physiological memory of having been damaged in the past," he says.

His other major criticism of the study relates to the signal from the simulated mast radiation, which failed to include voice information. "It is the modulation of the signal associated with talking that creates the information-carrying radiowaves, which we know trigger the adverse effects," he says. "So, without talking on the signal, the biological pathway would not be triggered."

Autism and heavy metals

Although the medical authorities firmly dismiss any link between heavy metals and autism-especially in the context of vaccines-there is growing clinical evidence of just such a connection. Worryingly, much of it comes from research on the newborn.

Twenty years ago, research in the Middle East showed that mothers who ate mercury-contaminated bread gave birth to children with neurological problems such as "psychomotor retardation and seizures" (Arch Neurol, 1987; 44: 1017-22).

Among the first to discover the link with autism was US clinician Dr Amy Holmes (see main story) and colleagues. She studied hair samples taken from 94 autistic children at about 18 months of age. Compared with non-autistic infants, the damaged children had significantly less mercury in their hair, suggesting an inability to excrete mercury. "The lack of mercury in the children's hair could be due to the metal being retained in cells,"

says Dr Holmes. There was a clear dose-response relationship: the less mercury in the hair, the more severe the autism.

Where had the mercury come from? Holmes found that it had probably come from the mother during pregnancy: the mothers of the autistic children had more amalgam fillings, and had received, during pregnancy,

a Rho(D) immunoglobulin injection, which uses the mercury-based thimerosal, as found in vaccines (Int J Toxicol, 2003; 22: 277-85).

Rho(D) immunoglobulin is routinely given to Rhesus (Rh)-negative mothers with a Rh-positive fetus. US researchers have speculated that if the mercury-autism connection is true, there would be more autistic babies born to Rh-negative mothers who have had the injection-and that's exactly what they found. The medical records of nearly 1000 such mothers revealed a near tripling of autism-spectrum disorders in their offspring (J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med, 2007; 20: 385-90).

Another source of mercury in pregnancy is fish consumption. A Harvard study found that mothers who had eaten fish during pregnancy had more intelligent children at six months of age-almost certainly due to the omega-3 fats in fish. But if the mothers had inadvertently eaten fish with high mercury levels, the reverse was seen: their children showed impaired cognition (Environ Health Perspect, 2005; 113: 1376-80).

Pollution is another possible autistic factor. The California Departmentof Health Services recently surveyed the homes of children with autistic-spectrum disorders in the San Francisco Bay area, and found strong correlations with levels of mercury, cadmium, nickel, trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride in the ambient air (Environ Health Perspect, 2006; 114: 1438-44).

Further confirmation of the heavy-metal connection comes from two reports. One, from France, found strong evidence that autistic children have elevated levels of precoproporphyrin, "an atypical molecule" that is a specific indicator of heavy-metal toxicity, say scientists at the Laboratoire Philippe Auguste in Paris (Toxicol Appl Pharmacol, 2006; 214: 99-108). A University of Texas study found that levels of arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead were lower in the hair of young autistic children compared with matched controls, indicating an inability to excrete the metals (J Toxicol Environ Health A, 2007; 70: 715-21).

How to avoid brain injury

- Test for possible mercury poisoning by:

- MSMT (metal-specific memory T-cell) test

- Hair or sweat analysis

- EAV (Electro-Acupuncture according to Dr Reinhold Voll), a test based on acupuncture meridians

- Applied kinesiology.

- Don't eat fish high in mercury, including:

- Chilean sea bass

- Grouper

- Marlin

- Rockfish

- Farmed Atlantic salmon

- Shark

- King mackerel

- Swordfish.

- Consider having your dental amalgam fillings removed (but only by

an expert).

Making wireless safe

The Safe Wireless Initiative proposes a series of practical steps to reduce levels of information-carrying radiowaves (ICRWs) in the environment.

- Change the infrastructure. Most mobile-phone mast transmissions are made not to mobiles, but to other masts. Linking masts via high-capacity fibreoptic telephone cables would reduce the present background ICRW levels by 85 per cent.

- Erect a network of low-power local antennas (nodes), and apply shielding devices to the nodes to reduce biological damage.

- Equip mobile phones with protective technologies. There are two main types of protective/shielding devices:

- The noise-field system emits random low-power magnetic fields which attach to ICRWs, so when the signal reaches the cell, it doesn't resonate with the cilia on the cell membrane. The health benefits of adding electromagnetic 'noise' to microwave signals were first shown in laboratory studies a decade ago (Bioelectromagnetics, 1997; 18: 422-30), but the mobile-phone industry appears to have largely ignored the data. The leading noise-field device on the market is Exradia's Wi-GuardTM, which embeds noise-field technology within the phone's batteries.

- Sympathetic resonance. Some subtle-energy devices claim to have direct biological effects, allowing cells to communicate with each other. Two of the best known are Q-Link and ERT, although the evidence of their efficacy is limited.

Simple steps to reduce your exposure

- Choose a mobile phone with a low SAR (specific absorption rate)

- Use an airtube headset, not one made of wires

- Keep the phone away from the body while connecting

- Avoid using the phone when the signal strength is low, as the phone emits stronger radiation to make a connection

- Replace DECT phones with corded phones, especially by your bed

- Don't use Wi-Fi in the office or at home. Use old-fashioned wired links to the Internet and other networked computers

- If pregnant, test your environment for wireless radiation with a kit such as the Electrosmog Detector (www.detect-protect.com/k/)

- Consider screening yourself and your home by sleeping under a mosquito net of fine metal mesh, and covering your walls with kitchen foil

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