Autism and Mitochondria

by on

An article in The Economist, Explaining Autism: Energy drain, suggests that one of the causes of autism may be faulty mitochondria. Mitochondria serve as the power-packs for other cells in the body, especially nerve cells. They take apart sugar molecules and in this process energy that can be used by other cells in the body is liberated. Since nerve cells have a high demand for energy, one hypothesis is that a failure of mitochondria to function properly may be related to autism.

Cecilia Giulivi and researchers at the University of California, Davis, studied the mitochondria of ten children between ages two and five who had been diagnosed with autism. Their research has recently been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (Obviously, this is a VERY small sampling, which limits conclusions.) These children with autism were matched with ten children from similar ages and economic backgrounds who were developing normally.

Results showed that the mitochondria in the children with autism consumed far less oxygen than those in the control group. The mitochondria of the autistic children also leaked damaging oxygen-rich chemicals like hydrogen peroxide, and the level of hydrogen peroxide in cells of autistic children was twice that in the control group.

The article expresses many cautions regarding the study and concludes:

“And no scientist, least of all Dr. Giulivi, is suggesting that the new study bears on the question of environmental triggers of mitochondrial malfunction. But if faulty mitochondria do turn out to be a cause of autism, even if not in all cases, that question will have to be investigated. And you can bet your bottom dollar that somewhere out there is a lawyer wondering whether we can do just that.”

Filed under: