Immune Dysfunction in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Literature Review Part 2

If you missed part 1 of this series, I was thrilled to see a review of the immune system’s role in autism in a prominent journal. In this post, I’m going to dissect just a few sentences in the introduction that bothered me. I was trained in the fascinating field of immunology. We admired those who developed vaccines, both those who came before us-and those who worked alongside us. In class, we learned of Jenner’s bold experiment using cowpox to protect a young boy against smallpox. Researchers at my institution developed the Hib vaccine and later, the pneumococcal vaccine. They were regarded as heroes. Although I feel I was harmed by receiving the Hep B series in graduate school, I have stayed quiet because I cannot prove it. (Many in science developed autoimmunity after receiving that vaccine.) Any immunologist speaking out against vaccines would be considered a heretic! I did feel strongly enough to make sure none of my children received it, though.

One of the fathers of immunology.
One of the fathers of immunology.

So, in reading Estes and McAllister’s overview of maternal and postnatal immune dysfunction’s role in the etiology and pathophysiology of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I was surprised to see this:

“Although accumulating evidence indicates that immune dysregulation increases the risk, and contributes to the pathophysiology of ASD, this does not mean that vaccines cause ASD. In fact, recent studies have debunked the myth of a link between ASD and early childhood vaccinations. (citing Taylor, L.E., et al. 2014. Vaccines 32:3623-3629). Despite the unequivocal and compelling research behind the conclusion that vaccines do not cause ASD, society is at risk of preventable contagious diseases-including whooping cough, measles, and tuberculosis-because of the unsubstantiated fear of vaccinations. For these reasons alone, it is crucial to disseminate and improve our understanding of immune and environmental contributions to ASD.”

Scientific papers typically go through a rigorous review process, even when they are invited reviews. I am certainly not privy to how this paragraph came to be in their paper. Perhaps a reviewer insisted; I have no idea. But the rest of the paper goes on to convincingly outline the evidence that a subset of individuals, especially those whose mothers have autoimmunity, are substantially more at risk of developing ASD.

History has taught that scientists can be wrong, even when they are totally confident and bold in their conclusions. At one time, researchers mixed dirty, sweaty underwear and wheat in an open container and concluded that the adult mice that appeared days or weeks later were a result of “spontaneous generation”, or life appearing from non-life, “proving” Aristotle’s theory from 400 BC. Another “proof” of this theory was placing raw meat in an open pot and “discovering” maggots later. Anyone who dared to question the theory of spontaneous generation was ridiculed and called a fool, until Louis Pasteur came along in the mid-19th century and did the experiment that proved the theory false. I pray it does not take that long for a courageous individual to do an honest analysis on this immunologically at-risk population to determine whether vaccinating an expectant autoimmune mother or her infant raises their risk of developing ASD. Although screening newborns to determine their immune competence would be costly compared to just injecting them with vaccines, it pales in comparison to the cost of lifetime care of an individual diagnosed with autism.