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Can Breastmilk Cause Autism?

Augh! Writing that title almost made me gag.

But a new article on the University of California, San Francisco site claims that neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has performed research that may make some leaning toward formula fulling tip over the edge.

Merzenich tested newborn rats by dosing them with the proportionally even amount that newborn humans get from human breastmilk of the chemicals PCBs and PBDEs. The outcome, he said, was

brains that were more degraded in their organization developmentally in these rats than we have ever seen before

So it’s as simple as that, eh? Breastmilk causes autism. Not so fast, there, Nestle.

Merzenich made it clear that these tests were on rats, not people. And it’s not so easy as cause and effect. There are a few things that he was concerned about, but brings these worries forward “with trepidation”:

In general our study adds to the worry and it really indicates that it’s in the great public interest to determine quickly whether or not these chemical poisons…are adding to the risk of onset of these developmental disorders. Because if they are this is a big thing.

The consequence of adding the PCB poisoning to simulating what we believed to be the factors that are contributing to the onset of these developmental disorders, autism and related disorders, had devastating additional consequences. So we saw brains that were more degraded in their organization developmentally in these rats than we have ever seen before.

What are these chemicals again? PCBs have long been banned, but PBDEs are their chemical cousins. They’re flame retardants and are found in everything from pajamas to mattresses to electronics. When these are sent to the dump, the chemicals enter the water system and go into the land. They start off low in the food chain until they reach humans in higher levels. American women have the highest levels in the world.

Dr. Merzenich also called some attention to the rise in cases of autism spectrum disorder and tied it to the rise in breastfeeding rates of the past 30 years, as though in that case correlation is causation. He said that yes, PCBs and PBDEs “bioaccumulate” (so meat-eaters are disproportionately affected). But he also wondered whether our success at getting women to breastfeed has increased the rate of ASD and related disorders, especially for those who are genetically predisposed. Obviously, toxins will pass from mama’s body to her baby.

Still, over and over, Dr. Merzenich reiterated: breastfeeding is good. Women should breastfeed.

This is a positive and good and healthy thing

So all of the wonderful good and positive reasons for nursing your baby, those are all real, those are all terrific, they are all for the good of the baby unequivocally. It’s very hard to speak against that or be discouraging about that but, on the other hand, there is the possibility that in nursing you actually increase the risk of a bad outcome in this respect.

He stresses that further research is needed and has called on the CDC and the Autism Foundation to study the matter further, if possible on humans and not rats.

Image: snaulkter on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

Hat tip: About.com’s Autism Blog.

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  1. You mix formula (made in a FACTORY where it can easily be contaminated) with water, right? And it is my understanding that WATER contains far more toxins than breastmilk. Its been all over the news recently – antibiotics, drugs, lead, etc. in the water. So how in the world can this doctor suggest that’s somehow more pure than breastmilk?

  2. As a mom of two children on the autism spectrum, studies like this drive me wonky!! Breast is best…PERIOD. I find fault in studies that lay blame on the mother for their child’s autism (except in the case of genetics).

    Have preterm labor and take terbutaline – your child’s autism is your fault…

    Have mercury fillings – your child’s autism is your fault…

    Not eat a 100% organic, vegan diet while pregnant – your child’s autism is your fault…

    You get the idea. 😉

    Great post Cate!

  3. I think what the doctor is saying is that these chemicals store up in our systems over time and increase as we are exposed, where as with water (most tap water is far less toxic than you may have heard. NYC has some of the cleanest is the world) the levels are potentially lower. Also, the water treatment plants may be able to filter out those chemicals from the water whereas our exposure to the chemicals is less about drinking water that it is in and more about our combined daily exposure through all of he products we have that are off gassing and leaching these chemicals onto and into our bodies.

    Perhaps the real answer here is that women should have their bodies tested for abnormally high levels of certain chemicals, metals, etc prior to conceiving. That way they can work with their doctor and team of wellness professionals to lower their levels and ensure their own health AS WELL AS the health of their baby.

  4. Very good summary and I’m glad it’s not quick to condemn him just because this is a pretty controversial result.

    And I think everything Michele said makes sense too.

    Kblogger, no one said he’s blaming mothers. If you read his research he’s blaming pollutants in the environment. That’s not your fault, that’s the fault of those who have polluted the environment. Really it would be quite an unbelievable tragedy if our continual destruction of the environment were to cause something as natural as breastfeeding to be potentially problematic.

  5. This study is v. frustrating to all of us, I’m sure. I simply don’t want people to turn to chemical-laden formula because they think it’s “healthier” or “safer”. And you know? I don’t think that Dr. Merzenich wants that, either. But he couldn’t exactly sit on these results, and it is important that we are avidly protecting our environment.

    @Melissa–I totally feel for your frustration. There’s always a new study coming out. I’m sure you follow ASD news and studies even better than I do, and it’s like watching the development of a new field. –>Researchers scratch heads. Start to perform studies. Publicize every single one. Becoming clear that these are only puzzle pieces in a HUGE picture, and we’re just working on the corner of it right now.

    Moms are certainly not to blame. And WTF?! We all STILL know breast is best and the most natural way to feed our children.
    But yes, I did gag typing that title.

  6. You know, aside from everything else that makes this study totally wacky… I’m part of the rat fancy, and I know a lot about rats, and rats can not get autism. It doesn’t exist in rodent species. So how on earth does a study on rats come to this conclusion? O_o

  7. mom2eight says:

    The reason rats don’t get autism is because they don’t get vaccinations.

  8. So, these scientists gave rats poisons, and then the rats showed signs of medical distress? How obvious!

    Also, the second I read “equivalent,” I knew there was no scientific basis for this study anymore. Nothing is equivalent; everything is limited to the means of measurement.

    Most importantly, until “they” find something that babies thrive on better than breastmilk, there is no reason to do anything but.

    I’m a Mom and a Scientist, and formula companies should just go to hell!

  9. Yes, our breastmilk is different today due to new chemicals introduced to our environment. I can’t understand though what makes this author and some others think that standard cows’ diets are any less tainted. Yes, I see this author speaks of bio-accumulation being higher in meat eaters but we feed crap (I mean real poop) and all kinds of sh*t to cows that no human would put into their mouths, not to mention the pesticides & herbicides & fertilizers on the “real” food they’re getting, water and air pollution we are all exposed to, all the many drugs the cows get (a lot more than most humans), etc. etc.

    Funny thing is that a large EPA study evaluating such contaminants in cow and human milk http://www.epa.gov/ncea/pdfs/dioxin/nas-review/pdfs/part1_vol2/dioxin_pt1_vol2_ch03_dec2003.pdf and finding a complicated picture but basically similar amounts, depending on the chemical, relates that the main source of some various contaminants in humans is from consuming cow’s milk.

  10. Note the following, for which sources are indicated below:
    a) In every advanced country in which breastfeeding is known to be very high, autism has also been found to be very high, if autism data are available for that country. In the European countries with low breastfeeding rates, autism rates are either known to be comparatively low or (where no data are available) there is good reason to believe they are low;
    b) The three U.S. states that are highest in autism are also among the highest in breastfeeding rates; of the seven U.S. states that have the lowest rates of breastfeeding, EVERY one of these seven also has an unusually low rate of autism;
    c) There is a 50% higher rate of breastfeeding among U.S. whites than among blacks, corresponding with a roughly 50% higher rate of autism among whites than among blacks;
    d) Older mothers are more likely to breastfeed, and to do so for longer periods, and toxins built up in their bodies (and therefore in their milk) increase with their years of exposure to the environment; and there is a 20% increase in risk of autism with EACH 10-year increase in parent’s ages;
    e) The Mormon Church is apparently the only major Judeo-Christian church to specifically teach its members that they should breastfeed their infants; in the most in-depth study yet of autism prevalence at various locations in the U.S., the white (almost all-Mormon) children in a group of over 2000 Utah children were found to have an autism rate that is over three times as high as the average white (mostly NON-Mormon) groups in the other thirteen U.S. locations studied.
    f) 65% of the children diagnosed with autism in a study area had received substantial breastfeeding, in what is apparently the only study published with such data as of May, 2012; by contrast, only 28% of children in that area’s general population as a whole had received that much breastfeeding.
    g) Developmental toxins are many times higher in human milk than in cow’s milk, because those toxins bio-accumulate up the food chain, since they gravitate to meat and fat. Cows don’t eat meat. Vegetarian women typically have low toxins content in their breast milk.
    (SOURCES — mostly government agencies — especially the EPA — and academic researchers, for all of the above, plus more of interest, can be found at http://www.pollutionaction.org.)

    Note that the U.S. Surgeon General is vigorously promoting breastfeeding, while saying nothing about the possibility of adverse effects associated with breastfeeding.

  11. pollutionaction.org sent me a letter in the mail with all this data that is not peer reviewed or accepted by the Academy of Pediatrics. I would consult a board certified pediatrician before you take advice from a website no matter how earnest or well intentioned they appear. Pediatricians are your best source of how to properly safeguard your child’s health. Giving a child mom milk is not always the best option. Sometimes children don’t gain weight on mom milk alone and need to supplement with formula or have dietary needs more restrictive and even regular formula won’t do they have to be on a very special and expensive formula. If your pediatrician can not answer your questions about nursing your infant they could probably send you to someone who can help you reach a balanced decision on how to feed your child. I am concerned about the prevalence of autism but have not seen any data which shows the smoking gun – I really doubt it is encouraging women to nurse or pump and bottle feed since children throughout time have gotten nourishment this way.

  12. Hold on one second… You are talking about CHEMICALS, not components of BREASTMILK. Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, present the information correctly! The research was talking about the rats receiving the chemicals and the changes they made to their brains, not the actual BREASTMILK. Breastfeeding is already under enough attack, please don’t add to it. Formula fed babies are more likely to have higher exposure to these chemicals due to parents microwaving their plastic bottles to heat the water… Most people know breastmilk should never be microwaved, thereby decreasing the amount of exposure to PCBs, etc. Facts folks. Let’s get them straight.

  13. Charlotte Toffolo says:

    Who on earth gave him a doctorate! ?!??! How does he think the human species has survived all these years drinking breastmilk if it causes autism? Plus why is he testing on rats? What the heck?


  1. […] the “breast is best” folks have lost all common sense, I don’t know what is. Take a report over at Eco Child’s Play this week: which prefaces half its paragraphs with reminders that this study […]

  2. […] proof that the “breast is best” folks have lost all common sense, I don’t know what is. Take a report over at Eco Child’s Play this week: which prefaces half its paragraphs with reminders that this study was […]

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