Three months ago I started a project piece debunking classic anti-vaxxer arguments. It started with a popular list of 28 studies that allegedly support Andrew Wakefield’s “revolutionary” research, the altar to which anti-vaxxers pray.
We left off by striking out 12 of the 28 studies (43 percent) for various reasons, including repeats, studies authored by Wakefield, studies in Wakefield’s own publication and other irrelevant studies. You can view the full list here.
However, there are still 16 studies that passed initial screening. Let’s dive into those and see what we can discover.
“Gastrointestinal abnormalities in children with autistic disorder,” The Journal of Pediatrics November 1999; 135(5):559-63
Wakefield was a gastroenterologist whose redacted study was based on the idea of “autistic enterocolitis,” a made-up condition that doesn’t actually exist. Essentially, Wakefield allegedly found a link between a certain bowl disease, autism and the MMR vaccine. You’ll see why this background information is important.
In this study, the authors suggest there may be a link between gastrointestinal malabsorption and certain “behavioral problems of the non-verbal autistic patients.” In other words, autistic children had a higher rate of GI problems that led to an increased amount of discomfort. Due to communication issues common with autistic children, it is possible that “behavioral problems of the non-verbal autistic patients” are a result of reacting to this discomfort.
Increased rates of GI problems within autistic children is an idea that is widely supported, as noted here and here. There are many theories as to why this may be, but nothing has been proven (however, some theories, including vaccines, have been disproven). For more insight on this topic, I suggest reading this easy-to-digest Live Science article.
Cliffs Notes: This study recognizes a correlation between GI abnormalities and “behavioral problems of the non-verbal autistic patients.” It neither supports nor replicates Wakefield’s study. So why was it cited among anti-vaxxers? Probably because it was a study dealing GI problems and autism, and if you don’t read it, you would assume it’s relevant to Wakefield’s “autistic enterocolitis.” It isn’t.
“Elevated Levels of Measles Antibodies in Children with Autism,” Pediatric Neurology 2003; 28(4): 1-3
Anti-vaxxers almost got me here, but the devil is in the details, which is a theme among the studies that are left on the list.
This study was published by Vijendra K. Singh, formerly of Utah State University. It’s worth noting that Singh published a similar study one year prior to the one cited above. However, anti-vaxxers won’t touch that one since it has been under heavy scrutiny. Why start at that one? Who knows.
In this particular study, Singh claims that MMR caused unusual levels of antibodies against measles within autistic children and antibodies against nerve cells. Thus, Singh has claimed that measles antibodies are attacking brain tissue, causing autism.
In his book “Autism’s False Prophets,” author Paul Offit says that measles experts pointed out that the test “Singh had used to detect measles antibodies didn’t detect them.”
Here’s Dr. Mary Ramsay, epidemiologist at the Public Health Laboratory Service in London:
“The authors report that the sera from autistic children react with one particular component of the vaccine. The evidence that this component is one particular antigen of the measles virus is not credible. Firstly, there is insufficient virus protein in the vaccine to come up positive in the type of test used by the authors. Secondly, they were unable to detect the main antigen of the measles virus (NP) while apparently detecting another antigen (HA). This doesn’t hold together. If there is sufficient measles virus in the vaccine to be detected then both the NP and the HA antigens should be present.”
Even if the methodology was not as controversial, there was still only a correlation between the two antibodies. In other words, there was no substantial proof that the MMR vaccine was attacking nerve cells.
Not only has this study not been replicated, but another study by Gillian Baird contradicts Singh’s findings. You can read that study here. The latter study used age-matching controls, which Singh’s study did not. It concluded “no association between measles vaccination and ASD was shown.” At the time, Baird’s study was the largest of its kind.
There was one voice of dissent with the contradicting study. That’s right, Andrew Wakefield. Shocker.
“Dysregulated Innate Immune Responses in Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Their Relationship to Gastrointestinal Symptoms and Dietary Intervention,” Neuropsychobiology 2005; 51:77-85
Bad news: This study is legit. Good news: It does absolutely nothing to further Wakefield’s study.
Dr. Harumi Jyonouchi suggested in this study an immune dysfunction associated with autism. This was done by studying responses to food allergens. David Amaral explains in his book “Autism Spectrum Disorder:”
This study found an association between cytokine production against dietary proteins and GI symptoms in ASD (autistic spectrum disorder). A large proportion of ASD subjects with GI symptoms were included in the study (75 out of 109), so it is possible that food allergy is most relevant among the subset of ASD subject.
What does this mean? Essentially, the study deals with the effects of dietary restrictions on autistic children with positive GI symptoms. In no way does this study replicate or support Wakefield’s claim that MMR vaccines cause autism. It simply deals with the similar theme of GI issues and autism. That’s pretty much the only link other than Wakefield referenced the study several times in his book “Waging War on the Autistic Child: The Arizona 5 and the Legacy of Baron von.”
Many believe that diet plays a role in autism, including Wakefield. If you’re arguing about dietary plans and autism, this is a damn good study to cite. If you use this to argue vaccines cause autism, you didn’t read shit.
In the next installment of “Debunking anti-vaxxers,” we’ll tackle another study by Dr. Singh, research about celiac disease and autism, and a study that isn’t even a study.