Saturday, November 12, 2011

First, Do No Harm: Omega-3 Oils Treatments Against the Onset of Autism

From six months onwards, children afflicted with "classical autism" gradually exhibit an early onset of linguistic impairments, which stand in stark contrast to those at the other end of the spectrum, whose main challenge lies in social interaction. The most difficult part of the diagnosis is naturally the absence of remission, but the fact remains that autism is a highly variable neuro-developmental disorder without physiological attributes: for this reason, cases are only firmly established from the age of three onwards.

Therein lies a curious coincidence. Anthropologists are fond of saying that all human infants are prematurely born: if they waited until their brains are properly wired up, like all other mammals do, their heads would've gotten stuck in the mother's birth canal. So an infant gets out while it still can, and stays completely dependent on the mother up to the age of three. During those years, the baby effectively operates as a detachable fetus, while it sorts out the wiring in its heads.

So it's quite conceivable that the key to unlocking autism lies within those three years. Granted, we have absolutely no clue whether nature or nurture is to blame. Geneticists no longer talk of an "autistic gene", since the evidence points towards a combination of interlocking mechanisms. At the same time, we have exonerated quite a few suspects, such as preservatives, vaccines, and a combination of the two.

Still, there's no reason to despair, since we have at least one more potential treatment at our disposal.

For more than a decade scientists have observed one "missing link" in a number of seemingly unrelated ailments, from the definitively physiological to the apparently psychological. Schizophrenia has been associated with atypical neurochemistry without a doubt, whereas anxiety disorders are still being combated with bath salts. But in all these cases, as well as hyperactivity and now autism, the patients registered abnormally low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. These results, collected separately and in unrelated surveys, were originally dismissed as a statistical fluke, since omega-3 oils, and particularly those of the DHA variety, were then principally known for their anti-inflammatory effects in the cardiovascular system and had nothing to do with the central nervous system whatsoever.

Of course, the same thing once happened with the majority of pharmaceutical products we now consume as a matter of course. As long as there are no demonstrable harm, doctors are very comfortable with not knowing why something works as long as it works (and they get paid). Replenishing omega-3 acids in older autistic children's diets does alleviate some of their developmental difficulties, but only as long as they stay on it. These improvements include speech, cognitive awareness, as well as hand-eye coordination.

Pregnant women have long been advised to consume DHA supplements by the European Union, as a precaution against developmental disorders. It is very likely that a continued regime throughout childhood might deter the incidence of autism spectrum disorders.

We'll have to wait for quite a while before definitive proof comes out. But since fish oils do no harm, why take the risk?

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