Exploring Aluminum’s Toxicity and Potential Connection to Autism

Were you to take a public opinion poll based on the question “Is aluminum safe?” you’d probably receive a potpourri of answers. As the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute notes, despite the fact that aluminum has been proven to be toxic to humans, its toxicity has been largely downplayed; in turn, potential side effects from exposure via common household items, medications, and more have not been the focus of much scientific research. However, in a paper that explores the environmental and genetic etiologies of autism, researchers C.A. Shaw, S. Sheth, D. Li, and L. Tomljenovic further explore the nature of aluminum’s toxicity, as well as its role in neurodevelopmental disorders. Here’s what they’ve found.

Aluminum Negatively Affects our Central Nervous System

An abundance of studies have proven exposure to aluminum can disrupt function of the central nervous system by causing shortcomings in learning, memory, psychomotor control, speech, and behavior. Aluminum’s effect on the central nervous system was first reported by William Geis, and his findings have since been confirmed in a number of studies throughout the 20th century. With this foundational understanding of aluminum’s toxicity, Shaw et al. were interested in learning how different forms of exposure, specifically exposure through ingestion or injection, affect the severity of CNS dysfunction. They discovered that only about 0.25 percent of aluminum is absorbed into the blood stream (and therefore able to disrupt the CNS) when ingested through food, yet aluminum injected into muscle tissue is absorbed into the blood stream at nearly 100 percent. Unfortunately, the aluminum adjuvant Al hydroxide is commonly found in routinely administered vaccines, vaccines which have become more frequently administered to young children in recent years. Not only can injected aluminum find its way into our bloodstream, it can collect in other organs throughout the body. What’s more, because it can resist kidney excretion and breakdown by enzymes, aluminum has the ability to stay in the body for up to 10 years.

Animal studies have proven that aluminum adjuvants also disrupt immune responses, suggesting they affect the body’s immune system and CNS in an interconnected manner.  Though animal trials have been the most extensive area of study concerning the effects of aluminum adjuvants, a human study has also revealed that exposure to aluminum adjuvants has caused Macrophagic Myofasciitis, neuromuscular disorder that predominantly appeared in women who had received between 1 and 17 vaccine administrations containing Al hydroxide.

Aluminum Adjuvants Maintain a Highly Probable Link to Autism

The autism spectrum disorder is defined by neurological and immune system deficiencies, both of which aluminum adjuvants have been proven to impede the function of. Aluminum is also a known toxin to blood brain barriers, and a growing body of evidence strongly suggests that disruption of the blood brain barrier is the primary cause of CNS-immuno deficiencies in individuals with autism. What makes this area of research even more compelling is the discovery that the immune system and the CNS are more intertwined than previously thought; in fact, a significant amount of communication occurs between these two regulatory systems, and researchers have found that stimuli to the immune system can affect this communication, and subsequently affect CNS performance. For example, it’s been shown that sustained immune stimuli can cause the types of proinflammatory responses that trigger CNS abnormalities.

In their study of autism populations in 7 Western nations, Shaw et al. found a significant correlation between the extent of Al adjuvant exposure and autism rates. To further support their findings that aluminum maintains a link to autism, Shaw et al. also conducted a study that exposed outbred mice to aluminum adjuvants based on common vaccination schedules. They found that exposure resulted in long-lasting, heightened anxious behaviors, and that mice that were placed on a more frequent exposure schedule subsequently demonstrated more prominent anxious behaviors.

Research by Seneff et al. also supports a potential causal relationship between aluminum and autism, as Seneff et al.’s work found that after 2000, when aluminum’s burden in vaccines was increased, more reports of seizures, fatigue, pain and cellulitis were reported from individuals with autism. Each of these symptoms is strongly associated with vaccines that contain aluminum. It’s also been found that autistic individuals have higher-than-average concentrations of aluminum in their blood serum.



Could Autism be the Result of Genetics AND Environment?

What causes autism?

This is the question that researchers have attempted to answer for years. As the prevalence of autism (ASD) increases with each passing year (U.S. autism cases grew by 72% from 2007 to 2013), researchers, like those at CMSRI, are anxious to pinpoint the exact cause of this neurological disorder.

Researchers are getting closer, but as scientists C A Shaw, S Sheth, D Li and L Tomljenovic point out in their “Etiology of autism spectrum disorders: Genes, environment, or both?” paper, published in OA Autism, genetic causes have dominated the focus of ASD etiology research, but not to the field’s advantage. Many believe that individuals on the spectrum have a genetic predisposition for the disorder, and some research has shown that ASD can be inherited. However, not all cases of ASD are explained by genetics, which multiple twin studies have helped reveal. These studies found that 55% of ASD cases between twins were the result of environmental factors, while 37% were the result of genetics. This suggests that an environmental stimulus, which could even act as a genetic trigger, may often be at play.

Aside from twin studies, there’s an abundance of scientific evidence to suggest ASD is the result of environmental influences. One of the most obvious is the commonalities between ASD and other neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Parkinson’s disease, all of which share many of the symptoms of ASD, and all of which have largely been determined to be the product of environmental influences, rather than genetic mutations. Scientists have actually been able to replicate the symptoms of ALS in outbred mice with no gene mutations without altering their genetic makeup.

Individuals with ASD also often have abnormal neural connectivity, and as Shaw et. al point out, there is a growing body of research that suggests this abnormality is the result of immune signaling interfering with the development of circuitry, and in turn, causing symptoms of ASD. These neural connections have also been shown to maintain neuroinflammation, which suggests immune-related pathways in the brain have been altered. The presence of autoimmune manifestations like immunoglobins and CNS autoantibodies in ASD individuals, manifestations not found in neurotypical brains, have also been found in those with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Multiple findings suggest that an ASD individual’s abnormal connectivity is the result of what’s known as immune insults, or damage to the immune system, shortly after birth.

This connection between immune insults soon after birth and an abnormal central nervous system has already been substantiated by research, though not specifically in the context of autism; for example, it’s been shown that peri- and post-natal immune insults cause abnormalities in behavior and cognitive responses, deficiencies in social and sensorimotor abilities, and heightened anxiety. All of these abnormalities appear in individuals with ASD, and all are caused by disruptive environmental influences.

So the question becomes, what environmental factors are responsible for the dramatic increase in ASD? Though we may not have a precise answer, it has been found that xenobiotics like mercury, aluminum, and lead can cause neuroinflammation and immune dysfunction, which produce each of the observed abnormalities.  Exposure to these xenobiotics can come from various sources, but the only source that’s almost universally exposed to pregnant women and children in the United States is vaccines. Many flu vaccines today include the mercury compound Thimerosal, which was also present in many childhood vaccines before being banned in 2001. Aluminum, another toxic xenobiotic, is still used as an adjuvant in a large number of pediatric and adult vaccines.

The potential role vaccines might play in ASD development is a topic that merits more full-bodied analysis and discussion; however, the rapid increase in cases of autism since 1980, in conjunction with compelling scientific evidence, does strongly suggest one thing: environmental factors should be more closely analyzed as potential causes of autism.