Are Ultrasounds Causing Autism in Babies? - Page 2

Author // Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D.

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Manuel Casanova, a neurologist who holds an endowed chair at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, is one medical doctor who is listening. Casanova contends that Rakic’s mice research helps confirm a disturbing hypothesis that he and his colleagues have been testing for the last three years: that ultrasound exposure is the main environmental factor contributing to the exponential rise in autism.

When Casanova began researching autism 15 years ago, he discovered that neuroscientists had not been able to isolate the differences between an autistic brain and a normal brain, unlike with Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s, where the damage in the brain has been localized. Casanova realized that in order to understand both the causes and the potential cures for autism, scientists needed first to figure out where in the brain of autistic children damage was occurring.

Since no damage to individual neurons had ever been isolated, Casanova theorized that we might not be examining the brain in the right way. He began looking at the brain as a system instead of isolated parts.

He examined columns of neurons working together— what scientists now call “minicolumns.” Minicolumns are responsible for higher cognitive functions like facial recognition, joint attention (if I turn my face and look somewhere, a child will turn and look too. Not because I told the child to look, but because the normal human brain is wired to do so), and much more. Joint attention is one of the many qualities that appear to be abnormal in the brains of autistic children. Casanova recognized the imperative of studying the circuitry within the brains of patients with autism and other psychiatric conditions. He and his colleagues found something surprising: Brains of autistic patients have a 10 to 12 percent higher number of minicolumns, as compared to nonautistic brains.

They also found another anomaly. During the normal formation of the human brain, cells divide in the hollows (ventricles) of the brain and then migrate to the surface (cortex), acquiring a vertical organization into columns. At the same time, other cells migrate tangentially and meet up with the columns. Casanova calls these migrations “a very fine ballet,” and explains that the cells that migrate tangentially have an inhibitory role, acting like a container to keep the cells in the minicolumn from spilling into other parts of the brain. Compared with other animals, even primates, the neurons in the human brain have to travel a much longer distance, and during this long migration there is, unfortunately, ample opportunity for things to go wrong.

Casanova explains: “You know that a shower curtain keeps water inside of the bathtub. If you have a defect in the shower curtain, water will spill out of the tub. If the radial migration is not coupled with the tangential migration of inhibitory cells, then the minicolumns will have a faulty shower curtain of inhibition and information will no longer be kept within the core of the minicolumn, it will be able to suffuse to adjacent minicolumns and have an overall amplification affect. Actually the cortex of autistic individuals is hyperexcitable and they suffer from multifocal seizures. One third of autistic individuals have suffered at least two seizures by the time they reach puberty.”

Translation: As the “minicolumn” brain cells move outward, if the complementary cells that inhibit them don’t keep pace, the information in the minicolumns will suffuse out to surrounding cells, causing a chain reaction that can result in seizures.

Ultrasound waves, Casanova explains, are a form of energy known to deform cell membranes. In fact, in the early 1990s the FDA approved the use of ultrasound to treat bone fractures because ultrasound increases cell division. Some cells in the human body are more sensitive than others.

Among the most sensitive cells? Those stem cells in the brain that divide and migrate.

Casanova’s hypothesis: Prolonged or inappropriate ultrasound exposure may actually trigger these cells to divide, migrate and form too many minicolumns. They divide when they’re not supposed to and there are no inhibitory cells to contain them.

There are more neurologically damaged children in the United States today than ever before. As of 2007, 5.4 million children (equivalent to the entire population of Finland) have been diagnosed with attention disorders, and today one in every 88 children in America has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Japan, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Australia, France, Germany, Canada and the United States are among the industrialized nations that are seeing a huge, troubling and seemingly inexplicable rise in the numbers of autistic children. These countries are geographically and culturally different. Their vaccine schedules are different. The labor and delivery experience is also different: In Scandinavian countries and Japan, many more pregnant women tend to choose unmedicated vaginal births.

But all these countries do have one thing in common: the vast majority of pregnant women are getting regular prenatal care and being exposed to ultrasound in the form of anatomy scans and fetal-heart monitoring. In countries with nationalized healthcare, where virtually every pregnant woman is exposed to multiple ultrasounds, autism rates are even higher than in the United States.

The ultrasounds done on pregnant women today use sound waves with eight times the intensity used before 1991. This time period roughly coincides with the alarming increase in the incidence of autism within our population. Even more disturbing, the majority of technicians using ultrasound machines (as many as 96 percent) do not understand the safety margins they must adhere to in order to make sure the fetus is not exposed to harm.

As ultrasound equipment gets smaller, less expensive and more portable, it has also become available— without any regulation—to anyone who knows how to surf the Internet. Want to see or hear your baby? You can buy your own ultrasound machine on Amazon or eBay.

“Most people believe it’s just about taking pretty pictures,” Manuel Casanova says, his voice thick with regret.

Pathways Issue 40 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #40.

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