Student guest post by Laura Vonnahme

The recent explosion in the rate of autism has prompted an increase in research as well as media hype. The disease, first described in 1943 by Leo Kenner, is a serious health condition that is now estimated to effect 1 in 110 children in the U.S. The nature of the disease and how to best treat it continues to puzzle researchers, as the symptoms and severity of the disease differ dramatically in all children diagnosed with the disorder. The disease manifests itself differently in all children and health care providers think of autism as a spectrum disorder, a group of disorders with similar features. One child may have mild symptoms, while another may have serious symptoms, but they both have an autism spectrum disorder. Currently the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) include autistic disorder (classic autism), Asperger Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (or atypical autism). Unlike, other diseases, ASDs are difficult to diagnose, as there is no specific medical test (1). Often doctors look at the child’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis.

Symptoms of ASDs can manifest differently and at different ages in children. Some children with an ASD show hints of ASD related problems within the first few months of life. In others, symptoms might not show up until 24 months or later. Some children with an ASD seem to develop normally until around 18-24 months of age and then they stop gaining new skills, or they lose the skills they once had. While early intervention services have shown to greatly improve a child’s development, there is no cure for ASDs (2). Generally, treatment is directed at particular symptoms, such as speech therapy for language delays, but there is no overall therapy to treat an ASD as a disease. In addition, while symptoms can improve, ASDs are lifelong disorders, that need continuous therapeutic interventions (5). Therefore, the origins and possible cause of the disease have become an important topic, as an identified cause of the ASDs can lead to an effective treatment.

There have been several theories presented in recent decades as to the cause and risk factors of ASDs; however, none of the theories have been solidified with scientific research. The most prominent theory, and the one that most scientists agree on, is that genes are one of the risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop an ASD. This is demonstrated by the fact that children who have a sibling or parent with an ASD are at higher risk of also having an ASD (3).

An additional theory is that ASDs are a result of an environmental factor, such as an infection. While this is highly speculative, there have been some recent findings that suggested ASDs could be a result of a blood borne pathogen. In October 2009, researchers from the University of Nevada, the National Cancer Institute and The Cleveland Clinic announced they had isolated particles from a retrovirus, called XMRV, possibly associated with ASDs. Researchers tested blood samples from a small group of children with autism and found that 40% of them were positive for XMRV and more testing is underway. While the researchers say XMRV could be linked to ASDs, they also say it is not the only factor, as there are genetic defects that contribute to ASDs. According to the research, XMRV can lie dormant in people, until it is turned on or off by other factors, such as stress hormones, or in response to the presence of inflammatory cytokines (7).

While the paper published only initial findings relating XMRV to ASDs, the lead author added to the recent controversy concerning the association between the MMR vaccine and autism. In October, Dr. Judy A. Mikovits 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” (6). This statement was made months before the Lancet retracted the infamous British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield’s paper, linking autism to the MMR vaccine, published in 1998. The paper was retracted after scrutiny and subsequent investigations by British regulators leading to charges that Dr. Wakefield falsified data and was paid by the parents of autistic children. In addition, there have been several studies since disproving Wakefield’s research, implying that MMR vaccines are not the cause of ASDs (4).

Questions concerning ASDs and their link to a viral infection remain, and further studies are needed to prove or disprove this new theory linking XMRV to ASDs. In addition, further research is needed to pin down the exact significance of the relationship between the infection and ASDs. For example, is the virus implicated in the cause of autism, or do children harbor the virus as a result of autism (6)? As research continues to move forward, the causes and risk factors of these prevalent ASDs remain a mystery. Thus, until a link can be made between ASDs and their cause, it is unlikely that an effective treatment will be found.

Works Cited

1. “Autism Research Network.” Autism Research Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.

2. “Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs).” NICHD – The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Official Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2010.

3. “Autism.” N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2010.

4. Berman , Jessica. “Lancet Disavowal of Autism Vaccine Connection May Lead to More Immunizations | Health | English.” News | English. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2010.

5. “CDC – Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASDs) – NCBDDD.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.

6. Kirby, David. “Is Autism Associated with A Viral Infection?.” Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2010.

7. Mikovits, Judy and Vincent Lombardi. “Detection of an Infectious Retrovirus, XMRV, in Blood Cells of Patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome .” Science 326 (2009): 585-589. Science AAAS. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.


  1. #1 Steve Silberman
    February 24, 2010

    Interesting post, Laura.

    By the way, in your second sentence, that should be “Kanner,” not “Kenner,” and “affect,” not “effect.” Thanks.

  2. #2 Sullivan
    February 24, 2010

    Peter Bearman’s group has taken an incredibly close look at the California Department of Developmental Services (CDDS) data on autistic clients. He says there is no seasonality in the data, so seasonal diseases (like influenza) and seasonal vaccines (again influenza) are likely not causal for autism–either prenatally or perinatally.

  3. #3 Someone with Asperger's & CFS/ME
    February 24, 2010

    Isaac Newton – PART ONE : Isaac Newton is believed to have had Asperger Syndrome. 40% of those who have an autism spectrum disorder may have an XMRV infection. Isaac Newton Junior had the same name as his father, Isaac Newton Senior, who was born on 21 September 1606. His father Isaac Senior married Hannah Ayscough on 10 April 1642, but six months after the consumption of his marriage he died at the age of 36 on 16 October 1642, less than three months before his son was born on 25 December 1642, but his son Sir Isaac Newton died at a much older age : he died at the age of 84. Isaac Junior died due to a kidney stone complication on Monday, March 20th, 1727. Urolithiasis (kidney stones) may be frequently found in XMRV-Positive Patients. Underlying Metabolic Abnormalities May Cause Many XMRV-associated Kidney Stones. Isaac Newton´s mother and father both died at relatively young age : his father at the age of 36 on 16 October 1642, and his mother, born in 1623, died at the age of 56, on June 4, 1679. Both his parents may have had an XMRV infection which may have lead to their early deaths, and to their son being born with an autism spectrum disorder. Most striking thing of all is the exact point in time when Isaac Newton´s father dies : the death of Newton´s father comes at a peculiar time : he died within 9 months after their son had been conceived, which may have lead to coinfection with XMRV/HHV-6A/CMV resulting in Isaac Newton´s father early death, most probably due to underlying metabolic abnormalities. But the most important lesson that can be drawn from all this is that Sir Isaac Newton is thought to have died a virgin, which must have been an extremely important beneficial factor in his health history, because this may have made it possible for him to keep himself in a reasonable condition of health for a very long time, except for the three last years of his life, when he had already reached old age, and old age is not exactly known to be a health promotor. Sir Isaac Newton became 84 years old, but in his case the intensity with which these XMRV-related health problems occurred may not have been as extreme as seen in Mozart, Beethoven, James Joyce, and especially not as extreme as seen in Charles Darwin, who conceived 10 children, which in those days was only possible by having sexual intercourse, and Sir Isaac Newton Junior clearly had no children, and there is no evidence of sexual intercourse whatsoever, which, fortunately for him and for science may have kept him far away from bad health until he was well into his early 80s.

    Isaac Newton – PART TWO : And what is more : Isaac Senior, the father, died within 6 months after his marriage with the mother of Isaac Newton Junior, which is the reason why we should conclude from all this that Isaac Newton Senior, the father, had the right combination of weak genes, most probably gene mutations such as Z-A1AT and C282Y stimulating coinfection with XMRV/HHV-6A/CMV, but also the mother of Isaac Junior must have had this coinfection with XMRV, because both died at relatively young age, but the father died 20 years earlier than the mother, which is why it is so important to understand that having the right combination of weaker genes is what is leading to earlier death in those who have an XMRV coinfection. But why then did Isaac Junior survive all this until he was 84 year of age ?

    Isaac Newton – PART THREE : The reason for that may very well be that he outwitted this debilitating disease firstly by not having sexual intercourse, and secondly by accumulating extensive knowledge of appropriate self-medication, because after all Isaac Newton Junior was an alchemist, and he judged the art of alchemy to be more important than anything else. Alchemy was the predecessor to chemistry, but here it becomes clear how alchemy was more than just a predecessor to chemistry. Newton had the chance to produce medical drugs for his own benefit. However, those medical drugs may have had their side effects, eventually leading him to die of a kidney stone complication at the age of 84. Kidney stone complications are frequently seen in immunocompromised patients. When you have such a coinfection with XMRV, then long-term survival is only possible in an environment where the right medical care and nursing is present, which is what we can see in the case of Charles Darwin, who suffered terribly from what – without any doubt – must have been an XMRV-induced immune deficiency syndrome, but Charles Darwin was fortunate enough to find his health being cared for in the good hands of an extremely dedicated, highly qualified and highly educated wife.

    Isaac Newton – PART FOUR : Survival is indeed only possible in an environment where the right medical care and nursing is present : just compare and look at what happened to Sophia Mirza, a 32-year-old English woman born in 1973, and who died of a severe case of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) in 2006. Sir Isaac Newton, however, survived until the age of 84, because of one strategy : the strategy of perfect isolation, both sexually and socially. And Sir Isaac Newton had the perfect science-based skills to outwit XMRV-induced Disease for a very long time : after all Sir Isaac Newton is regarded by many scientists as one of the giants of science in general, and of an importance even surpassing that of Albert Einstein.

  4. #4 Broken Link
    February 24, 2010


    I’d like to make a few, hopefully constructive comments. First, let me tell you that I have a child with ASD, and my child is not diseased, in fact is perfectly healthy and thriving. While some children with ASD do have health issues, that is by no means the norm. In fact, a large, long-term study (PMID: 19886906) published recently, indicated that gastrointestinal problems were NOT more common in people with ASDs than in controls. I would greatly prefer that you refer to autism as a “disorder”, which it is, rather than a “disease”.

    I’d also like to mention that the study you refer to, on XMRV, refers only to patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It is certainly true that the authors have also orally reported that “this virus is present in a significant number of autistic samples that we have tested so far.”. However, I’d prefer to see the actual study before I was ready to draw any conclusions.

    I’d recommend the book “Autism’s False Prophets” if you want to read about the case against autism being caused by vaccines.

  5. #5 Someone with Asperger's & CFS/ME
    February 24, 2010

    Charles Darwin – PART ONE : Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882). Charles Darwin may have suffered from XMRV-induced Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Darwin’s disease included the following symptoms : nausea, vomiting, headaches, stomach and skin problems. Darwin’s disease was thought to be Crohn’s disease (F. Orrego – 2007). Charles Darwin was recently in the news, in December 2009, when an Australian professor John Hayman found Charles Darwin to have suffered from “cyclical vomiting syndrome”. Perhaps we should say that Charles Darwin suffered from both “chronic vomiting syndrome” and “chronic fatigue syndrome” ? Both disease denominations sound pretty much down to earth. What is more : Crohn’s disease and Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome (CVS) both have been associated with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome (CVS) is strongly associated with recurrent migraines. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is strongly associated with recurrent migraines. In fact, Charles Darwin clearly suffered from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, which is the correct denomination for CFS/ME. Charles Darwin suffered from XMRV-induced CFS/ME. But there is more.

    Charles Darwin – PART TWO : Charles Darwin had Asperger Syndrome. 40% of those with an autism spectrum disorder are thought to have been XMRV-infected. Vertical transmission—from mother to child. Charles Darwin suffered from vomiting. Symptoms associated with peritonitis include vomiting and abdominal pain. Peritonitis is frequently seen in immunocompromised patients. Peritonitis can be life-threatening. Peritonitis has a death rate of between 20%-60%. You can see this in cats. Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) in FeLV-infected cats. Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) due to co-infection with feline parvoviruses and feline coronaviruses in cats. You can see it in cats, and you can see in humans. Human Infectious Peritonitis (HIP) in XMRV-infected humans. Human Infectious Peritonitis (HIP) due to co-infection with human parvoviruses and human coronaviruses in humans, with human parvovirus B19 infection being the most important cause, the most important culprit in humans. What is the difference between a vomiting cat with FeLV, and a vomiting human with XMRV? The answer is that there is no difference. Because both cases are caused by a retrovirus. And what you see in both cases is mammalians vomiting. Both cats and humans either have a coinfection with one or more parvoviruses and/or one or more coronaviruses. What you need in humans is a retrovirus such as XMRV to start with, together with a coinfection with HHV-6A and Cytomegalovirus (CMV). And you should not forget the human parvoviruses and human coronaviruses. All this together will cause peritonitis. And that is what you can see in Charles Darwin too. And also in Charles Darwin´s mother. Peritonitis is a life-threatening event leading either to death or to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in case the patient would survive the ordeal. Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood 1765-1817) was the mother of Charles Darwin, and at the age of 52 “she died of peritonitis when [her son] was eight-and-a-half years old” (SS Schweber – 1989). Charles Darwin´s mother died on 15 July 1817, when Charles was only 8 years old. And Charles Darwin clearly suffered from peritonitis himself, but he was made “fit” enough to survive, because Charles Darwin had a complete household in full charge of his health. Both Charles Darwin and his mother clearly have suffered from XMRV-induced Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Also Charles Darwin’s elder brother, Erasmus Alvey (1804—1881), suffered from poor health throughout his life. Both Charles Darwin and his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (12 December 1731 – 18 April 1802) suffered from migraine headache, and both men stuttered. Stuttering should be understood as a possible symptom of XMRV-induced brainstem neurodegeneration. Recurrent migraine is indicative of CFS/ME. Erasmus Darwin died in 1802, aged 70. Erasmus Darwin died before his grandson Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was born. Charles Darwin and his mother clearly suffered from XMRV-induced Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Whether Charles Darwin’s grandfather also suffered from this still remains to be seen. But keep in mind that Charles Darwin had no real social life, because of this debilitating disease, and that Charles Darwin is a clear-cut case of XMRV-induced Asperger Syndrome and CFS/ME !

  6. #6 Sullivan
    February 24, 2010


    Keep in mind that David Kirby is well known for his misunderstanding and misrepresentation of science. He is a PR person, working for groups promoting the idea that autism is vaccine injury.

  7. #7 Someone with Asperger's & CFS/ME
    February 24, 2010

    When a “Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry” (specialized in Psychiatry, and not specialized in gastrointestinal diseases) concludes that no evidence has been found that patients with infantile autism (IA) are more likely to have defined gastrointestinal (GI) diseases, then I would look for more information elsewhere.

    Conclusion : “A number of studies have indicated a link between gastrointestinal (GI) diseases and autism spectrum disorders.”

    Literature :

  8. #8 Joseph
    February 24, 2010

    Echoing what Broken Link said, is it necessary to call it a disease? If there’s nothing to be gained by it, why not use another word like ‘condition’ or ‘disability’?

    You see, to an autistic person reading, ‘disease’ might be just as offensive as it would be to a gay person if you were to call homosexuality a ‘disease’. It doesn’t exactly matter if you honestly believe it should be thought of as a disease in a medical sense.

  9. #9 Mike Stanton
    February 24, 2010

    I think one of the problems with a lot of writing on autism is when the author succumbs to the temptation to go beyond the data.

    So far we have preliminary findings of elevated rates of XMRV virus in autistic subjects. Before jumping to conclusions it would be prudent to ask, Have other studies replicated these findings? If the XMRV virus is related to the autism we might also expect to see some kind of syndromic effect. Do those autistic subjects with the virus have a different clinical presentation to those without the virus?

    The speculative link with vaccines is totally unsupported by any data. To make sense first you have to assume a connection between vaccines and autism. 12 years of intensive research into this question have failed to support a link between vaccines and autism and severely undermined the hypothetical mechanisms suggested by critics of the vaccine programme.

    The new hypothesis suggests that the vaccines stimulate the T and B cells that are home to the XMRV virus and trigger the activation of the virus. I am unclear as to the argument at this stage.Is the immune system so taken up with the XMRV virus that it allows the vaccine to cause the autism? Or is it the XMRV that causes the damage? Either way, if we consider how little of the immune system is “used up” when the body responds to a vaccine compared to a full blown infection, the logical objections to this hypothesis ought to be apparent.

    I think that Mikovits went way beyond what could be justified with her highly speculative comments. What we had in effect were two hypotheses (XMVR and MMR)neither of which could stand independently, that were supporting each other in the manner of a couple of drunks.

    You were right to stress the speculative nature of the ideas and call for more research.

  10. #10 Joanne
    February 25, 2010

    A very interesting article.

    I was surprised Judith Mikovits’ remarks were not more widely discussed in the media, given the incidence of Autism.

    I prefer for now to remain open minded and hope science spends time researching this possibility more thoroughly before saying yes or no.

    As someone who has what would appear to have been Lyme Disease for 6 1/2 years and being treated on long term antibiotics and recovering I have taken an interest in both XMRV developments and Autism because of possible connections with ME/CFS cases and Lyme Disease, as well as Autism and Lyme disease.

    You would find

    an interesting site to visit.
    Particularly research done by Robert Bransfield this years president of ILADS, on Autistic children he has treated who were found to have Lyme disease in their coctail of problems and improved on treatment for Lyme disease.

    There are many parallels with ME/CFS and Lyme Disease and many patients like myself who were first diagnosed with ME/CFS and then it was found to be Lyme Disease.

    With the controversy over the IDSA 2006 guidelines details of presentations to the review of these guidelines can be found at It is hardly a surprise that there is not more awareness of Dr Bransfields research with Lyme Induced Autism.

  11. #11 Autistic Lurker
    February 25, 2010

    I really don’t want to pick up on this post but I have many corrections to make. First, I and the people in the cognitive neuroscience lab I worked in don’t believe that autism is an illness; in fact, our main hypothesis is that perceptions of autistic people are different (enhanced) when compared to neurotypical peer and our publication record support that hypothesis.

    A recent publication from Dr. Soulière ( provide support for an increased functioning of the visual cortex in high level reasoning task as found in the raven standard progressive matrix and although I am heavily biased (by being autistic as well as having worked for the aforementioned research team), I still find it hard to believe that an in infectious based mechanism be responsible for increased signal (based on oxygen consumption) on fMRI brain scans.

    If either Dr. Smith or Laura would like to have more informations, you can contact me at the email address I provided for this comment.

  12. #12 Natasa
    February 25, 2010

    Infectious agents as disruptors of calcium homeostasis and possible etiological factors in autism:

  13. #13 Natasa
    February 25, 2010

    HIV infection in children – neurodevelopmental (autistic) outcomes and clinical pathologies – and their correlations to idiopathic autism

    There is a striking correlation between neurodevelopmental symptoms found in children infected with HIV retrovirus and those children diagnosed with idiopathic autism…

  14. #14 Alexander Cheezem
    February 25, 2010

    Regarding Joseph’s comment (that autistic people reading this would find the terminology used offensive), he is exactly correct. The autistic lurker who posted (and who I suspect the identity of) is also correct in that the science generally bears out our view (if, of course, you ignore the utterly insane definition of “disease” used by geneticists — and absolutely no one else).

    In fact, this article would be flat-out regarded as hate speech by a number of the (autistic) people I know.

  15. #15 Autistic Lurker
    February 25, 2010

    Pardon the offtopic comment but this comment is directed at Alexander Cheezem.

    Alexander, while it is easy to find out my name if one really want and I have though about posting using my real name in the past, I decided to remain pseudonymous for now and I’d prefer it if you respect my wishes. The quality of my posts are not affected by my use of pseudonym.

  16. #16 Alexander Cheezem
    February 26, 2010

    I didn’t state who I suspected you to be precisely for that sort of reason.

  17. #17 Wendy Fout
    February 26, 2010

    I DO have a child on the spectrum and unlike the parent who said she states her child has a “disorder” rather than a disease, I feel the complete opposite. My child has been sick since his first DTAP at 7 months (chronic diarhea until 8 years when we did secretin then at 19 months after 2nd DTAP we lost language, social etc) along with food allergies, high viral titers, chronic strep in blood and GI, Low IGG, IGA immune markers. So with this being said of a parent who had a typically healthy baby who became ill b/c of the vaccines administered, yes my child is sick and is being treated by Dr. Michael Goldberg -Tarzana, CA, for the illness the underlying issues for his “Autism” but, what we now know to be a Neuroimmune Disorder

  18. #18 Broken Link
    February 26, 2010

    Another paper popped up in Pubmed this morning (PMID: 20182626) suggesting a link between Chlamydophila pneumoniae Infection and autism.

    However, I don’t expect this will be picked up by the media. After all, chlamydophila pneumoniae could potentially be prevented by a vaccine (although this vaccine is still under development). So, this could be a scenario where vaccination might prevent autism.

  19. #19 Marge
    March 23, 2010

    Laura, to write about autism is to step into a nest of vipers – vipers who will do things like issue death threats to people who dare to tell the truth (like ‘Wakefield was wrong’ as a simple example). People like David Kirby are single-issue liars, more interested in shit-stirring than accuracy. The fact that you’ve cited him is a fairly good sign that you have no idea what you’ve got yourself into.

    Explosion in the rate of autism” – really? There are a number of studies looking at autism rates, and they conclude that diagnostic substitution can account for all or most of the increased rate of autism; at most you’re looking at a rise rather than explosion, and there may be no increase whatsoever.

    “Continuous therapeutic interventions” – really? In some cases possibly. A lot of people with ASD live as adults with no more medical interventions than the average adult; others need a large amount of social support in their daily lives which isn’t really ‘therapeutic’.

  20. #20 Rob White
    March 27, 2010

    Be aware that XMRV is difficult to detect correctly, and easy to detect incorrectly as iirc it’s very similar To some sequences in the human genome. See PLoS One. 2010 Jan 6;5(1) for more info casting doubt on the link between disease and xmrv.

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