Heavy metal poisoning appears to be a primary driver of autism, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. Researchers from the University of Chicago found that environmental pollution, and particularly mercury and mercury-containing compounds, may be responsible for increasing a child's risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by nearly threefold.
Data collected from health insurance claims filed by 100 million people in the U.S. over the course of many years revealed a strong correlation between ASD and mothers' exposure to environmental pollution. According to the research, children born to parents exposed to high levels of pollution are about 1 percent more likely to be born with birth defects. But these same children are also about 283 percent more likely than other children to develop autism.
Pregnant women living in the top 20 percent of the most polluted areas evaluated were found to be twice as likely as women in the least polluted areas to birth a child with autism. Similarly, women directly exposed to the highest levels of mercury chemicals were determined to be about 50 percent more likely to have a child who develops autism.
It is believed, based on these findings, that children exposed to chemicals during their most intense developmental stages experience major physiological changes that affect their brain development. Tiny molecules from plasticizer chemicals, prescription drugs, environmental pesticides and heavy metals such as mercury interfere with normal childhood development, leading to symptoms that qualify on the autism spectrum.
"Essentially what happens is during pregnancy there are certain sensitive periods where the fetus is very vulnerable to a range of small molecules," says Audrey Rzhetsky, lead author of the study from the University of Chicago. "Some of these small molecules essentially alter normal development. It's not really well known why, but it's an experimental observation."
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