When I learned about DNA in high school, we were told that was it. Our DNA explained who we were. It was written in the double helix inherited from our ancestors. Yes, DNA was the ultimate winner in the smackdown battle between nature versus nurture, that is, until epigenetics came along.
What is epigenetics? The International Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia Foundation explains:
Derived from the Greek, the word epigenetics literally means “above” genetics. Epigenetics is the study of chemical markers that modify genes but are not part of DNA itself. Like DNA, they can be passed on from cell to cell and from one generation to the next. These modifications are superimposed on top of our genes to tell them whether they should be active or inactive. For example, every cell in your body has the same DNA; however, some cells are specialized for use in the heart, the bones, the brain, the nerves, the stomach, etc. These cells become specialized because different sets of genes are turned on or off at different points in cell development, leading to differences in the types and amounts of proteins produced and determining how the cells look, grow, and act. This is epigenetics in action…
Just as we know that our DNA can change because of mutations, our epigenetics can also change during our lifetime. Lifestyle and environmental factors can expose us to chemicals that change our epigenetic profile. In other words, what we eat and drink, whether we smoke, what medicines we take, what pollutants we encounter, how quickly we age, may affect this process. Look at the case of identical twins. Although they share the same DNA, their bodies may not be exactly identical. One twin may develop arthritis or diabetes, for instance. At least some of these differences are due to changes in our environment that affect our epigenetics.
Research has shown that shortages or excesses of food during a person’s childhood can cause epigenetic changes that lead to diabetes, obesity, and early puberty. Genes become epigenetically modified to deal with adverse conditions and then pass on to offspring who may enjoy more comfortable conditions. Changes that made sense during a time of hunger can then transfer to children and grandchildren who live in a time of abundance.
Meet the Epigenome
The answer lies beyond both nature and nurture. Bygren’s data — along with those of many other scientists working separately over the past 20 years — have given birth to a new science called epigenetics. At its most basic, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genome, just outside it (hence the prefix epi-, which means above). It is these epigenetic “marks” that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.
I first learned about epigenetics last year when attending a conference on Teaching Children with Developmental Disabilities to Speak. The following three points were made about the importance of epigenetics, neurology and chemical avoidance:
- Avoid BPA!: Our genes are most vulnerable during pregnancy and adolescent. Chemicals in our environment affect our genes (epigenetics).
- Parenting and nurturing affects genes: Here’s the scientific proof attachment parenting is important. Behavioral cues are also part of epigenetics (“environmental factors that change genes in the first and second generation”). Babies need to be held and talked to closely to caregivers.
- “The best diet for pregnancy is organic!”: Epigenetics again! Maternal diet has a great effect on the developing brain.
In a recent vaccine debate spurred by the tragic death of a child after receiving the flu vaccine, I was reminded of the importance of epigenetics. I think epigenetics is the reason some children have adverse reactions to vaccines, whether they develop autism or not, die or not, or develop other serious injuries. Let’s be clear…vaccines are full of chemicals, and we are injecting them right into our little ones bodies.
Is there a link between epigenetics, vaccines, and autism? It may be the only answer…
Age of Autism thinks so:
The epigenome is then best understood as existing above your genes (or genome), but influencing how your genes work. The explanation offered by biologists is that if your genome can be compared to a computer’s hardware, the epigenome is the software telling it how to function. The process of changing the genome is through a process called DNA methylation; a single carbon atom attached to three hydrogen atoms. “When a methyl group attaches to a specific spot on a gene . . . it can change the gene’s expression, turning it off or on, dampening it or making it louder.”
All of which brings us back to autism.
Our community has long asserted our children were not genetically pre-determined to get autism. If autism was purely a genetic problem then the numbers should be 1 in 100 from here until the dawn of time. The autistic should be part of our culture, the stories we tell, the very fabric of our society. But they’re not. Instead we have stories about the tidal wave of adults with autism we can expect in the next few years and how poorly prepared we are for them. Nobody saw this problem until it was first described in the 1940s. From that time it’s gone from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100. With that rate of increase, can it be long until it goes to 1 in 10? We need to find answers.
And let’s be clear about it. Most of us saw a change after a vaccination, a procedure which has become more common since our generation (10 vaccinations in the 1980’s before the age of 5 to 36 vaccinations under the current schedule) and has been administered at earlier ages.
Many of the far-sighted researchers and physicians in autism have been talking about DNA methylation for years. These concerns have finally begun to enter the mainstream conversation.
Scientists have discovered environmental toxins that even your grandparents were exposed to could affect the children being born today. Here’s an example. Scientists exposed lab animals to a particular pesticide. Expectantly they exhibited neurological damage and autistic like behaviors. Here’s the catch – they compared the animals hard genes before and after exposure and determined they were undamaged. They then bred the animals… Surprisingly four generations later the great great siblings exhibited the same percentage of autistic like behavior and neurological damage – even though they were never directly exposed to pesticides and it would not be found in their blood stream. Scientists have discovered that our epigenetic systems to be so much more susceptible to minute amounts of toxins like pesticides and worse yet the epigenetic mutaltions can be passed down through the generations making the causal relationship or “evidence of harm” so elusive.
Whether it is generational exposure to pesticides and/or vaccines, something is going on here. The MMR vaccine was developed in the 1963. In two to three generations, could this vaccine be causing the increase in autism?
More recently, however, researchers have begun to realize that epigenetics could also help explain certain scientific mysteries that traditional genetics never could: for instance, why one member of a pair of identical twins can develop bipolar disorder or asthma even though the other is fine. Or why autism strikes boys four times as often as girls…
Can epigenetic changes be permanent? Possibly, but it’s important to remember that epigenetics isn’t evolution. It doesn’t change DNA. Epigenetic changes represent a biological response to an environmental stressor. That response can be inherited through many generations via epigenetic marks, but if you remove the environmental pressure, the epigenetic marks will eventually fade, and the DNA code will — over time — begin to revert to its original programming. That’s the current thinking, anyway: that only natural selection causes permanent genetic change.
Scientific American concurs:
Given the elusive nature of inherited epigenetic modifications, it seems that, despite decades of investigation, scientists remain on the brink of understanding. The possibilities, however, seem endless, even with the constraint that, to be inherited, epigenetic modifications must affect gene expression in the germline, a feat that even genetic mutations rarely accomplish. But with the skyrocketing prevalence of conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and autism, which have no clear genetic etiology in the majority of cases, as Brunet pointed out, “It seems that all complex processes are affected by epigenetics.”
While scientists continue to search for definitive evidence of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans, the implications so far suggest that are our lifestyles and what we eat, drink, and breathe may directly affect the genetic health of our progeny.
I would add what we inject into our bodies to that list of lifestyle implications.
We know vaccines cause injuries, otherwise there wouldn’t be a compensation program, even though it rarely pays out. A New Jersey family did, however, get $4.7 million from this program. The same holds true to the safety of pesticides that once are considered safe, only later to be considered harmful, such as DDT.
The Lancet study linking autism and vaccines may have been flawed and thus retracted, it did not examine vaccines and epigenetics. It does not end the controversy. It does not disprove the link.
The combination of vaccines and other environmental toxins on epigenetics is the most reasonable cause for the rise of autism. It does not take vaccines off the hook, as many assumed by the Lancet retraction did. It doesn’t mean that vaccines don’t save lives. It means we need to clean up the chemically-ladened world our children live in, both in medicine and in the home.
Richard Weisiger MD says
Good article! I suspect many common environmental chemical exposures will turn out to be damaging as we learn more about epigenetics. Most such exposures, like BPA, are far more frequent and insidious than vaccinations. Childhood whooping cough still has a very high mortality rate in infants, and the risk of catching it has increased 23-fold in the past 30 years because of reduced vaccination rates. My daughter, a nurse, insists that my year-old grandson gets his shots. His risk of developing autism is about 1% whether or not he is vaccinated, which as a new grandparent I find very scary.
Vaccination rates for whooping cough remain high. Whooping cough cases have increased because the vaccine is not effective. Also, the child’s risk of developing autism is NOT about 1% whether or not he is vaccinated. I wonder where you read that. Regressive autism is extremely rare in unvaccinated populations.
Richard Weisiger says
Thanks for your comment! The 1% figure was off the top of my head, so I did a little looking and found this on the Autism Society website (http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/facts-and-statistics.html).
Facts and Statistics
• 1 percent of the population of children in the U.S. ages 3-17 have an
autism spectrum disorder.(Pediatrics, October 5, 2009)
• Prevalence is estimated at 1 in 110 births. (CDC & MMWR, 12/18/09)
You are quite correct that the pertussis vaccine does not work as well as we would like. In fact, a recent study from San Diego showed that 197 of 332 people diagnosed with whooping cough were up to date on their immunizations (59%). Because (as you say) the fraction of unvaccinated people in San Diego is very small, their odds of getting pertussis must be very high for them to make up 41% of the total cases despite their small numbers.
I would be interested in where you got your data for autism incidence rates in unvaccinated populations, as I have not seen any controlled studies with large enough numbers to be useful.
Your comment that vaccinated and unvaccinated children are equally likely to develop autism is not supported anywhere and such information can be confused by many people with factual statements. The 2009 study in Pediatrics actually showed that 110 per 10,000 children is autistic. This translates to 1 of every 91 children, about 1.1%. A more recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry (2011) found that 1 of every 38 children (2.6%) has an autistic spectrum disorder. This study was conducted in S. Korea.
To my knowledge there are no controlled studies comparing vaccinated and unvaccinated populations for autism. However, Mayer Eisenstein, MD, JD, MPH has been practicing family healthcare since 1973 serving more than 75,000 parents and children. Most of the children were unvaccinated. Dr. Eisenstein checked his database of over 4,000 unvaccinated children and not a single one is autistic. (He was also contacted by his insurance company because they didn’t understand why his patients had virtually no allergies, asthma, or respiratory illness.)
The CDC is aware of Dr. Eisenstein’s database. An important question every concerned parent ought to ask is WHY are there no controlled studies comparing vaccinated and unvaccinated populations for autism?
Richard Weisiger says
Thanks for your response NZM! We are entering an era of “evidence-based” medicine, in which clinical decisions are guided by hard data rather than by what doctors believe to be true (which often turns out to be wrong). The strength of such evidence is can be ranked from strong (prospective, controlled, blinded studies) to weak (anecdotal unpublished observations).
In statistics, the “null hypotheses” states that there is no difference between two groups until proven otherwise. Dr. Eisenstein’s statement, “I don’t think we have a single case of autism in children delivered by us who never received vaccines” suggests that his findings are opinion rather than a statistically-valid observation. He needs to publish his database to be taken seriously.
Your question “WHY there have been no studies…” suggests you may suspect a conspiracy to silence people such as Dr. Eisenstein who challenge established views. Certainly, it can be difficult to change the opinions of scientists, many of whom have a vested interest in the current status. However, the scientific establishment is constructed so that it is very possible. A recent example is the epigenetics revolution, which overturned the dominance of genetics and the human genome project in just a few years.
As I am sure you know, Dr. Eisenstein has come under criticism from some quarters. He has made money not only from his practice, but also from selling supplements, books, talks, and his weekly radio show (http://www.whale.to/vaccine/autism_doctor.html), which many would view as a conflict of interest. He once claimed to be on the faculty of a “College of Health Sciences” which he later admitted did not exist (ibid). This doesn’t mean that his views are wrong, only that they should be carefully vetted (e.g., by peer review before publication) before they are accepted.
Notice that I am NOT saying that vaccines don’t contribute to autism, only that the evidence I have seen is weak. Because there are LOTS of dangerous toxins in our environment that are at least as likely to be responsible, focusing on one cause prematurely could actually slow our progress in preventing and treating autism. Based on my personal understanding of the data, I will continue to support vaccination of my grandchildren despite the risk.
You and I agree that evidence-based medicine is important. That is one of the reasons I was concerned about your unsubstantiated statement claiming that vaccinated and unvaccinated children are equally likely to develop autism. Without evidence to support this statement, people are likely to think it is factual.
It is also important to recognize that much of what occurs in medicine today, including within the vaccine industry, is not based on valid science. For example, you noted that you will continue to support vaccination of your grandchildren yet there have been NO studies supporting the safety of the CDC’s recommended immunization schedule. Infants are expected to receive 8 different vaccines (drugs) concurrently at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. Toxicologists understand the potential for synergistic toxicity when two or more drugs are administered simultaneously, yet the FDA does not require synergistic toxicity studies for vaccines in the various combinations they are given to millions of babies every year. Sadly, your grandchildren and the nations’ children are guinea pigs to the vaccine industry without the evidence-based science that you and I both agree is vitally important.
Regarding Dr. Eisenstein, I was not suggesting that there is a conspiracy to silence him. What I was noting is that the one study that could yield essential data is the one that the CDC refuses to commission. There’s an elephant in the room that the authorities are pretending doesn’t exist. Comparing autism rates in both vaccinated and unvaccinated populations is a simple enough study to design. (By the way, your statement implying that Dr. Eisenstein might have a conflict of interest because he makes money from his practice and by selling supplements is implausible. This would disqualify every medical practitioner that ever charged a fee for their services and/or sold drugs.)
One other point I’d like to make is that our trust in studies with “strong” evidence may be misplaced. Science can certainly put a man on the Moon. However, an article in JAMA [July 13, 2005] found that one-third of “highly cited original clinical research studies” were eventually contradicted by subsequent studies. In other words, much of our presumed “science” today is fiction tomorrow. I also highly recommend reading an article published in the November 2010 issue of The Atlantic by David Freedman. The author of the article — Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science — interviews Dr. John Ioannidis, a well-respected expert on bad science. He shows that even many published randomized controlled studies are literally nonsense. The article is eye-opening.
Stephanie Aust says
There are some rather myopic interpretations of information which supposedly links autism and vaccines. Few studies will ever agree 100%.The rate of autism in one study population to the next can vary greatly due to geographic location, quantity of subjects, and more often than not, a very common occurrence of random population bias. Most assume that by increasing the population of a study group the correctness of percentages increases. This helps somewhat, but anyone who has ever actually worked in a lab knows this is not always the case. It takes a great number of studies and lots of peer review for the data to balance out. This is the backbone of any good theory or study. This allows for the dilution of bad data (that which was gathered by researchers looking for a specific outcome, such as a link between autism and vaccines).
I am terrified that everyone is jumping on the Epigenomic Bandwagon when it is a fairly new area of research (1980’s). There are books and supplements which can be purchased which tout they can heal one’s epigenome through methylation, acetylation, deacetylation, and all manner of chemical grooming. Laymen now decry various medical treatments. One who understands synergistic toxicity should understand the dangers of grabbing onto a treatment before it has gone through rigorous testing. Eat healthy, increase intake of folate-rich foods. These behaviors have been understood to promote health for decades, if not centuries. Please do not, however, attempt to sling the proverbial poo at treatments which have proven to prevent disease. Any course of treatment can have that small percentage of population which reacts poorly, vaccines included. A brief search of journal-published, peer-reviewed articles does, however, seem to indicate that there is more evidence to suggest there is no link between autism and vaccines.
One thing which seems lacking in this whole ‘vaccine/autism’ debacle is the ongoing research which looks for other causes of autism. It appears that a small hand-full of, pardon my stereotyping, anti-institutional paranoid nut-jobs has latched on to one convenient bit of data. They neglect ALL the other research surrounding the causes of autism and proclaim that vaccines are the root cause. If these articles and posts were truly empirical and based in reason a brief nod to the other research which is contrary to the author’s point would at least be presented in some small manner instead of blind opinion and immediate rejection.
Do some unbiased research. There’s lots of great information out there.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to prep for a presentation on methylation and miRNA.
Ross Coe says
A good website with OPEN MINDED responses. Unlike many that allow fools like ORAC a soap box to spew misinformation and character assassination of any questioning vaccines testing and safety.