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Med Hypotheses. 2011 May;76(5):653-60. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2011.01.024. Epub 2011 Mar 8.

A novel embryological theory of autism causation involving endogenous biochemicals capable of initiating cellular gene transcription: a possible link between twelve autism risk factors and the autism 'epidemic'.

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MHL, 2000 McElderry St., Baltimore, MD 21205, USA.


Human alpha-fetoprotein is a pregnancy-associated protein with an undetermined physiological role. As human alpha-fetoprotein binds retinoids and inhibits estrogen-dependent cancer cell proliferation, and because retinoic acid (a retinol metabolite) and estradiol (an estrogen) can both initiate cellular gene transcription, it is hypothesized here that alpha-fetoprotein functions during critical gestational periods to prevent retinoic acid and maternal estradiol from inappropriately stimulating gene expression in developing brain regions which are sensitive to these chemicals. Prenatal/maternal factors linked to increased autism risk include valproic acid, thalidomide, alcohol, rubella, cytomegalovirus, depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autoimmune disease, stress, allergic reaction, and hypothyroidism. It will be shown how each of these risk factors may initiate expression of genes which are sensitive to retinoic acid and/or estradiol - whether by direct promotion or by reducing production of alpha-fetoprotein. It is thus hypothesized here that autism is not a genetic disorder, but is rather an epigenetic disruption in brain development caused by gestational exposure to chemicals and/or conditions which either inhibit alpha-fetoprotein production or directly promote retinoic acid-sensitive or estradiol-sensitive gene expression. This causation model leads to potential chemical explanations for autistic brain morphology, the distinct symptomatology of Asperger's syndrome, and the differences between high-functioning and low-functioning autism with regard to mental retardation, physical malformation, and sex ratio. It will be discussed how folic acid may cause autism under the retinoic acid/estradiol model, and the history of prenatal folic acid supplementation will be shown to coincide with the history of what is popularly known as the autism epidemic. It is thus hypothesized here that prenatal folic acid supplementation has contributed to the post-1980 increase in US autism diagnoses. In addition to explaining the epidemic within the wider retinoic acid/estradiol model of causation, this theory leads to potential explanations for certain genetic findings in autism, autistic regression, and changing trends in autism symptomatology with regard to mental retardation, wheat allergy, and gastrointestinal problems.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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