Is Autism Associated with A Viral Infection?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Last week, researchers from the University of Nevada, the National Cancer Institute and The Cleveland Clinic announced the startling discovery of antibodies to a little known retrovirus in 95% of patients with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), a debilitating neuro-immune disease impacting more than a million people in the United States.

The finding, published in the highly respected journal Science, "clearly points to the retrovirus as a significant contributing factor in this illness," said lead author Judy Mikovits, Ph.D., director of research for the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease, which is affiliated with the University of Nevada, Reno. It was the first study to isolate particles of the retrovirus, XMRV, in human blood and demonstrate that it is transmitted between blood cells. XMRV was first discovered in prostate cancer tissue of men with certain genetic defects. Like the more well-known retrovirus, HIV, this pathogen is blood-borne, and not transmitted through the air.

The findings have potential significance for a number of other disorders including, it turns out, autism.

Researchers tested blood samples from a "small group of children" with autism and found that 40% of them were positive for XMRV, according to a statement from the Nevada Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders. More testing is underway which, the Commission said, "could dramatically increase that 40% positive finding." (Given the small sample size, such a statement is purely speculative).

As Dr. Mikovits explained to a television news program in Nevada, "It is not in the paper and not reported, but we have actually done some of these studies (in ASD children) and found the virus in a significant number of samples that we have tested for. It could be linked to a number of neuro-immune diseases, including autism. It certainly won't be all, because there are genetic defects that result in autism. But there are also the environmental effects; there is always the hypothesis that, 'My child was fine and then they got sick, and then they got autism.'"

According to Dr. Mikovits, XMRV (which admittedly sounds like a satellite radio system for your Winnebago) can lie dormant in people, until it is "turned on or off" by other factors, such as stress hormones like cortisol, or in response to the presence of inflammatory "cytokines," protein molecules secreted by immune cells to help regulate the immune system.

And then Dr. Mikovits dropped a bombshell that is sure to spark controversy.

"On that note, if I might speculate a little bit," she said, "This might even explain why vaccines would lead to autism in some children, because these viruses live and divide and grow in lymphocytes -- the immune response cells, the B and the T cells. So when you give a vaccine, you send your B and T cells in your immune system into overdrive. That's its job. Well, if you are harboring one virus, and you replicate it a whole bunch, you've now broken the balance between the immune response and the virus. So you have had the underlying virus, and then amplified it with that vaccine, and then set off the disease, such that your immune system could no longer control other infections, and created an immune deficiency."

So there you have it - a possible explanation of regressive autism in a significant number of cases associated with immune system deregulation triggered by vaccination.

Of course, much more work is needed to nail down the exact significance of such an association. For example, is the virus implicated in the cause of autism, or do children harbor the virus as a result of autism?

Either way, it is notable that such questions are being asked by mainstream sources such as the University of Nevada, and by extension the NCI and the Cleveland Clinic: Can XMRV infection plus vaccination create the right conditions for regressive autism? That remains to be seen. But it also means that the thousands of parents who claim their children did regress shortly after vaccination may not be so crazy and "fringe" as they have been portrayed by experts such as Dr. Paul Offit of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Dr. Thomas Insel, head of the National Institute of Mental Health and Chair of the federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC).

"We certainly are advocating vaccinations and how important those are to the well being of the children," explained Annette Whittemore, founder of the Whittemore Peterson Institute.

"But what we are hoping for is, by finding out whether or not one is positive to XMRV, whether it is in one family member or another, and then looking for it in children, you could alter the immune response in such a way that you can protect the child and still be able to vaccinate and avoid autism in these kids. And again, I don't think ether one of us is sitting here saying, 'Vaccinations cause autism,' but rather a number of factors; a genetic susceptibility to the illness, to the infection itself, and then on top of that you are adding something to that mix that takes that child over the top."

Apparently, the CFS findings have impressed the scientific community. "We presented these data three times: Twice at closed conferences at the NIH, and one at an international meeting a few weeks ago, and you could hear a pin drop in the audience - it's amazement" Mikovits said. "The scientists are excited, everyone is working on it, so we know we are going to get a lot of help. It's just amazement, it's an entirely new field of medicine and everyone who's ever worked in this family of viruses is, now that we've shown it's a human pathogen, is extremely excited."

Whittemore added that researchers hoped to develop a vaccine against XMRV quickly, noting that "It would be easier to find a vaccine against this than HIV, because it is a simple retrovirus."

The discovery raises more questions than it answers. What, exactly, is it about immunization that might switch on XMRV viral expression? Could the effect of heavy metals upon cytokine balances be at play? Where did this retrovirus come from, and how did it apparently become so prevalent in children with autism? Did these children inherit the virus from a parent, or was there some other unexplained route of transmission? Why has the NIH said nothing about XMRV in association with autism, and did Dr. Insel know about these findings without sharing them with the IACC?

Finally, Dr. Insel has said that a vaccine against autism may one day be developed. Was he actually referring to a vaccine against XMRV, and what role, if any, might he or members of his family play in the development of such a vaccine?

According to Insel's own biography, in 1994, he went to Emory University, Atlanta as a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, and Director of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. "As director of Yerkes," his bio says, "Dr. Insel built one of the nation's leading HIV vaccine research programs."