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Sick Monkeys: Research Links Vaccine Load, Autism Signs

Dan Olmsted

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Sick_monkey_2BY DAN OLMSTED

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."

The findings are being reported Friday and Saturday at a major international autism conference in London.

Although couched in scientific language, Hewitson's findings are explosive. They suggest, for the first time, that our closest animal cousins develop characteristics of autism when subjected to the same immunizations – such as the MMR shot -- and vaccine formulations – such as the mercury preservative thimerosal -- that American children received when autism diagnoses exploded in the 1990s.

The first publicly reported results of this research project come in both oral and poster presentations on Friday and Saturday at the International Meeting For Autism Research in London. 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.

In addition to Hewitson's oral presentation today, on Saturday in one of two related poster presentations, the researchers also are reporting in their abstract that "vaccinated animals exhibited progressively severe chronic active inflammation [in gastrointestinal tissue] whereas unexposed animals did not. 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.

The results are sure to be controversial, in part because they lend credence to studies first published in 1998 by British pediatric gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, one of Hewitson's co-authors on these findings. He described an unusual inflammatory bowel condition in children who had regressed into autism after they received the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination. Wakefield is currently fighting charges of medical misconduct in Britain over allegations of conflict-of-interest and improper procedures related to that paper. He denies the charges.

In the program for the conference, the 7th Annual International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), there are three separate presentations listed that report results from the overall research program. The first, an oral presentation entitled "Pediatric Vaccines Influence Primate Behavior, and Amygdala Growth and Opioid Ligand Binding" (the "amygdala abstract") was led by Dr. Hewitson and lists 12 co-authors, including five of her colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh and Dr. Wakefield. Other authors are chemists, pathologists and psychologists from the universities of Kentucky, California-Irvine, and Washington.

Hewitson's introductory presentation will be followed by two poster presentations on Saturday; one of the two, "Pediatric Vaccines Influence Primate Behavior, and Brain Stem Volume and Opioid Ligand Binding", was led by Wakefield and includes six additional co-authors.

It focuses on the developmental effect of vaccine exposures on brain growth during infancy. The second, "Microarray Analysis of GI Tissue in a Macaque Model of the Effects of Infant Vaccination," was led by Steven Walker of Wake Forest University and performed gene array analysis on the intestinal tissues of the vaccinated and unvaccinated monkeys.

The studies address – albeit in animals, not children -- one of the major criticisms by parents and scientists concerned about a possible link between the greatly stepped-up immunization schedule in the 1990s, including higher exposure to the mercury preservative, and autism. While the Food and Drug Administration approves individual vaccines as safe and effective, and an advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the childhood immunization schedule adopted by the states, the overall health outcomes from the total vaccine load, versus no vaccinations at all, have never been compared, the authors said.

A bill requiring the government to conduct a study of autism rates in unvaccinated American children is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, co-sponsored by Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Tom Osborne (R.-Neb.). Just this week, former National Institutes of Health Director Bernadine Healy called for more research into a possible vaccine link to autism and said the question had not been settled, despite repeated assertions to that effect by the CDC, the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In the abstract for today's oral presentation, the authors noted that macaques, the type of monkey used in the study, "are commonly used in pre-clinical vaccine safety testing, but the combined childhood vaccine regimen, rather than individual vaccines, has not been studied. Childhood vaccines are a possible causal factor in autism, and abnormal behaviors and anomalous amygdala growth are potentially inter-related features of this condition."

The study found evidence of both behavioral and biological changes after the 13 macaque monkey infants were administered proportional doses, adjusted for age, of the vaccines recommended between 1994 and 1999. Three monkeys were not given any vaccines.

"Primate development, cognition and social behavior were assessed for both vaccinated and unvaccinated infants using standardized tests developed at the Washington National Primate Research Center." MRI and PET scans looked for brain changes after administration of the MMR.

"Compared with unexposed animals, significant neurodevelopmental deficits were evident for exposed animals in survival reflexes, tests of color discrimination and reversal, and learning sets," the authors reported. "Differences in behaviors were observed between exposed and unexposed animals and within the exposed group before and after MMR vaccination. Compared with unexposed animals, exposed animals showed attenuation of amygdala growth and differences in the amygdala binding of [11C]diprenorphine. Interaction models identified significant associations between specific aberrant social and non-social behaviors, isotope binding, and vaccine exposure."

One of the Saturday abstracts makes the further point that the research "revealed significant differences between exposed and unexposed animals" in the kinds of developmental behaviors a mother might be able to observe, "with delayed acquisition of root, suck, clasp hand, and clasp foot reflexes." They conclude by noting that "This animal model examines the neurological consequences of the childhood vaccine regimen, Functional and … brainstem anomalies were evident in vaccinated animals that may be relevant to some aspects of autism. The findings raise important safety issues while providing a potential animal model for examining aspects of causation and disease pathogenesis in acquired neurodevelopmental disorders."


Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.