Family flaw

By Nell Boyce in Washington DC THE families of children with autism have an unusually high incidence of auto-immune diseases, say scientists in Maryland. This adds weight to a growing body of evidence that an altered immune system causes autism. By the time they are three, autistic children have retreated into their own inner world, where they fixate on repetitive tasks like flicking a light switch on and off. The condition has baffled scientists, but it shares some characteristics with auto-immune disease, including imbalances in the numbers of different immune cells. Anne Comi and her colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, hoped to test this link further. They sent questionnaires to the families of 61 children with autism and 46 normal children. Participants were asked if family members suffered from auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, early-onset diabetes, multiple sclerosis and thyroid disorders. The questionnaire also asked about pregnancy complications as well as childhood illnesses, seizures and allergies. In 46 per cent of the families of autistic children, two or more members had autoimmune disorders, compared to only 26 per cent of normal children’s families. And while only 4 per cent of normal children had either a mother, father or both with autoimmune disease, 21 per cent of the autistic children had at least one parent with autoimmune disease (Journal of Child Neurology , vol 14, p 388). “The only factor that came out was a family history of autoimmune disease,” says Comi. Another interesting observation was that 39 per cent of normal children had allergies, while only 11 per cent of the autistic children had them. Comi says this is more evidence that autistic children have immune abnormalities. Vijendra Singh, who studies autism at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says Comi’s study “really comes together with the biological research”. He points out that some doctors have already started treating children with drugs like immunoglobulin, normally used to treat autoimmune disease. There are hints that these drugs help children with autism,
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