How Oxidative Stress and Autism Are Linked

Oxidative stress is a physiological stress on the body that is caused by the cumulative damage done by free radicals, or products of oxidative reactions in and out of the body. And it's been most recently linked to prostate cancer, based on a specific genetic variation. University of Arkansas researchers believe oxidative stress could also play an important role in the development of autism.

After comparing blood samples of 90 autistic children to those of 45 children without the disorder, scientists found the active form of glutathione -- the major antioxidant in cells crucial to the detoxification and elimination of environmental toxins -- was reduced by about 80 percent in children with autism. Although children who have lower glutathione levels would reach a toxicity earlier than someone with higher levels, it's not clear, however, whether this is a cause or a consequence of autism.

Nevertheless, these findings may suggest autistic children with that reduced amount of glutathione in their bodies would be more sensitive to an environmental exposure and would be less likely to detox from heavy metals, scientists said.

Researchers also studied changes occuring in several genes that could affect glutathione metabolism in blood samples from 233 autistic children in comparison to 183 children without it. They found changes in three genes more often in the children with autism. Even though these are common genes that don't cause autism, they could contribute to the development of these metabolic abnormalities, according to the study.

Forbes.com April 3, 2005

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