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Autism and Vaccines: Boiling Over Yet Again

As you may well have heard by now, Ben Goldacre over at Bad Science has been involved in a wonderful altercation with both the anti-vaccination people there and with one of London’s big talk radio stations, LBC. And yes, this is happening just as Andrew Wakefield, one of the originators of the whole MMR vaccine flap, is being accused of falsifying data to make his case.
The full story can be found on Goldacre’s blog; see the link above for a starting point. The short version: LBC allowed Jeni Barnett, an outspoken opponent of vaccination, to vent her views for some 45 minutes in a prominent time slot. As Goldacre points out, she seems to have covered every possible anti-vaccine trope, despite the fact that some of them were mutually contradictory and many of them made little sense to start with. The British media – many parts of it, anyway – has not covered itself in glory on the whole vaccine-risk story, and this latest outburst was too much for Goldacre to take.
He posted the entire audio of the LBC show on his website, and that brought on threats of legal action from the radio station. And that move, as anyone who’s hung around the internet can tell you, made sure that the audio was immediately scattered around the world, with commentary, transcripts, and plenty of bad publicity. (You can find plenty of links to all of it here; I’m late to this particular party myself).
Goldacre makes an important point, one that’s been made before but has to be kept in mind when you’re listening to the news coverage of any disputed issue. He quotes Jeni Barnett as:

”. . . explaining endlessly that all she wanted to do was “start a debate” (because in the media everything is 50:50, and the truth lies exactly half way between the two most extreme views)

He’s right; you run into that sort of thing all the time – readers who’ve had occasion to deal with Intelligent Design people and other creationists will recognize it immediately. “Teach the controversy” “Let’s hear both sides of the debate”, and all that. It’s another example of the disconnect between science works (or should work) and the political and social arenas. There are some big differences in the way disputes are resolved.
One of them is that, to a certain degree, questions do not remain open in scientific debate in the same way they do in politics. Fistfights are currently erupting over whether Keynes had a point about deficit spending in a recession (and if he did, how much is appropriate and in what way). Huge, ever-inflamed arguments take place over welfare, regulatory policy, defense spending, and other perennials. There are more than two sides to these kinds of issues. But come over here to the scientific world, where gravity really does diminish as the square of the distance between two objects; bacteria really do cause infections; sodium really reacts with water and yes, living organisms do evolve and change over time. Proclaiming that you disagree with these things just because you don’t like them, just think that they’re wrong, or don’t happen to believe them will get you nowhere in scientific debate. (That’s as opposed to political or religious debates, where those are all-too-common starting points).
But, at the same time, every question in science is potentially open. Look at all those facts I listed above – you can find ways around all of them. Gravity stops behaving in a perfect inverse-square way close to large masses. Not all bacteria cause infections, of course, and not all infections are caused by bacteria – and some bacteria that might kill one person could cause no problems for someone else. Sodium doesn’t do anything spectacular at all when it’s in the plus-one oxidation state, and even the metal probably doesn’t do much when exposed to water at, say, three degrees Kelvin. And organisms evolve at startlingly different rates and through a variety of mechanisms.
These two simultaneous principles – that questions really do get answered, but that the answers are always open to question – are what puzzle a lot of people about science. And they don’t fit well with the way that many people are used to arguing about issues. They can dwell on the first point and whack the scientific community over the head for having closed minds and unchallenged dogmas, or dwell on the second and claim that hey, they’re all unproven theories, and here are some more theories to put on the table while we’re at it.
But if you’re going to challenge some science that we think we understand, you’re going to have to bring the data. The bigger the topic, the better the evidence you’re going to need. You can do it – all kinds of cherished theories have gone down – but it’s not easy. If you’re going to claim that evolution doesn’t happen, or that we’re thinking about it all wrong, you’d better have some really impressive evidence (and coming up with an alternative with the same kind of explanatory power would help, too). If you’re going to claim that vaccines do more harm than good, or that they’re the cause of a specific terrible condition, you’d better have the numbers to back it up, not a mish-mosh of talking points.
Einstein’s work, for example, has stood up against all comers, taking on all kinds of extraordinarily painstaking experimental tests and passing every single one of them. If you’re going to beat relativity, you’re going to have to show up with absolutely epic skills. And that brings up a last point. When Einstein explained Mercury’s orbit (and more besides), he didn’t come in proclaiming that Newton was an idiot and that he’d gotten it all wrong. Isaac Newton, though an exceptionally weird human being, was very far indeed from being an idiot. No, relativity shows how under “normal” circumstances, Newton’s gravitational laws work wonderfully. Then it shows under what conditions they go off track, and predicts when that will happen and exactly to what degree. If you’re going to proclaim any new way of looking at the scientific evidence, you’re going to have to show how your breakthrough allows for something new to be seen, and you’re going to have to call your shots and be ready for the experimentalists to have a crack at you.
I find all this wonderfully exciting, and I’ve devoted my career to it. But it doesn’t necessarily make for a quick TV or radio segment that will bring in a big audience, stir up a lot of noise and chatter, and (most importantly) raise the advertising rates. For that, you want politics, religion, or some tasty mixture thereof. . .

28 comments on “Autism and Vaccines: Boiling Over Yet Again”

  1. Ed says:

    I don’t want to come over as an apologist for this deranged woman, but given the almost entirely inexplicable incidence of idiosyncratic/idiopathic adverse drug reactions when dealing with small molecules, why is such a reaction with an immunisation not considered worthy of investigation?
    In the words of Robert De Niro in the film “Ronin” – “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt”

  2. Petros says:

    Becuase of Wakefield’s hypothesis on MMR and autism, based on very few patients anyway, and the way he promoted his theory, abetted by some vociferous journalists in leading British newspapers, the uptake of MMR vaccine has fallen badly in the UK and Ireland (ca 75% in London) with predictable unfortunate consequences.
    Aside from the data falsification arguements proceedings to suspend or revoke Wakefield’s medical license in the UK are underway.

  3. Nick K says:

    Ed: It’s called “Risk-Benefit Analysis”. In other words, the extremely rare adverse reactions to vaccination are overwhelmingly counterbalanced by the acquired immunity to measles etc.

  4. Anne says:

    As a sidebar, anyone who doesn’t read Wakefield’s rebuttal (or Kirby’s post 2/11/09 on Huffington Post on the matter of Mr Deer) is plain lazy, if they presume to voice opinions on autism etiology. Both are fascinating. (Not that this comment is particularly germane to your brilliant post, for which thank you.)

  5. MTK says:

    Timely, due to today’s US Court of Claims ruling.

  6. Hap says:

    There should be enough vaccination data to suggest a link if one exists – people don’t generally investigate every possible explanation for a phenomenon, but ones which are likely to explain it (and by likely, meaning that there are data that suggest a connection between the two – if you have a different system, acquiring data in a more relevant system is generally helpful, if not mandatory). If data suggests a link, then there is reason to explore it, but if not, such exploration is likely to be a waste of time and money. If you suggest it but have no data, it may be that data is irrelevant to those suggesting the theory, and said theory should be treated accordingly (like two day-old cat litter in a warm garage).
    Politics asks questions which are theory testable but in practice are confounded with so many factors to be effectively untestable (or at least to require lots of tortuous math that is easily manipulated). Religion in theory has testable phenomena (the end of the world ought to be noticeable) but is in general untestable. Business book writers, supplement makers, antivax people, ID advocates, and AGW opponents (IMO) are suggesting theories which are eminently testable, but the people suggesting them seem either to think that testing their hypotheses is irrelevant or that their dislike of alternative hypotheses is sufficient for their disproof. It is the job of others (the media, people who have relevant knowledge, the general population) to ask hard questions of theories (heck, any theory) to point out what might be problems in a theory. In some cases, people with dishonest intent use the lack of opposition as positive proof of their (bogus) claims. If no one asks for evidence, then people will eventually assume that evidence for a theory is irrelevant.
    While I thought the job of media was at least in part to ask useful questions of such people, I wonder why Mr./Dr. Goldacre thought that talk radio would actually do so – its job seems to be make a soap opera of reality, and to ignore what parts of reality don’t fit with the soap opera. Expecting any dosage of observable reality is asking way too much.

  7. MTK says:

    If I understand your post correctly, the answer is that a link between immunizations and autism is worthy of investigation. No one has disputed that. The problem is not lack of investigation, but a high degree of investigation in which the overwhelming preponderence of evidence indicates no link.
    While I won’t say that there might not be some cases where immunization was a contributing cause, it seems clear that it is at best a very minor contributor to overall autism rates. Given the huge increase in diagnosed cases of autism, if immunizations had been a major factor, or the cause, we would have seen it by now. So the question is not “Is it worth looking into?”, the question is “How long do we continue looking into this?”

  8. Or another way of looking at MTK’s point, the question now is “If you are going to invest money & smart people’s time in trying to understand autism, how much more do you pound on an avenue which has proven unpromising to date?”

  9. You're Pfizered says:

    “If you’re going to beat relativity, you’re going to have to show up with absolutely epic skills.”
    This sentence rocks. Perfect use of the long lost 80s term “epic”.

  10. Another Kevin says:

    @MTK (#7):
    Moreover, the question of “how long are we going to continue looking for this?” raises the whole issue of false positives. If someone with an axe to grind does 100 studies about the correlation between The-Thing-I-Hate and Dread-Disease, one of them is going to show association between the two at p=0.01 (eminently publishable!) by sheer blind chance. If Dr. Axegrinder simply fails to publish his other 99 results, we can be led astray.
    What usually saves us is that experiments are expensive to perform, so nobody can afford to do this. But nowadays, political pressure groups do have the resources.

  11. Paul says:

    Certainly a connection between thimerosal or other vaccine components is worth examining. And it has been examined and, so far, found wanting. The problem is that people get irrational when dealing with anything affecting children, and often get irrational when looking at scientific findings without the proper training.
    So you get people saying “ANY risk is too much” for a child. Showing them that a child’s risk of dying from measles is far higher than the risk of developing autism from a vaccine is often pointless: They simply close their minds and repeat their mantra.
    Telling them that there’s no demonstrated link between the two is likewise fruitless: they will latch on to a 10 year old study of N=5 patients, that has never been reproduced, and claim that it “demonstrates” such a link. And they believe it – they’re incapable of understanding why, in the world of science, that is just not true. Anyone who tries to explain this to them will be accused of arrogance, or elitism, or shilling for the biopharma industry, or not caring about children, some combination of these.
    I’d like to be able just to ignore this kind of nonsense thinking, but it’s a serious policy issue. Scientists are a tiny minority of the population. The vast untrained majority is responsible for administering and implementing the tools that we give them. If they aren’t willing to accept our guidance on science policy issues then we can and do find ourselves in some very dangerous situations. I don’t know what the solution is – we could vastly increase the prevalence of science education, or at least enhance the prestige of science to increase our role in shaping policy, but we’ve been trying to do both of these things for decades with little success.

  12. Hap says:

    “ANY risk is too much for a child.”
    Do they realize that they are probably taking far greater risks driving their children to school (or having their children driven on a bus, or allowing them to walk to school), or allowing them to eat at McD’s, or many other such things?
    The problem with that line of thought is that risk-free living is not possible – anything we do has risks associated with it. While I can understand people not wanting to accept risks for which they receive no benefits (or for which others receive the major portions of the benefits while they pay the major portions of the costs), in this case they and their children receive significant benefits in the reduction of disease-related deaths, and ones significantly greater than their potential costs. A (somewhat) cleaner conscience should be a bonus – not helping to kill the children of others is a bonus.

  13. SRC says:

    I think the driver for MMR/autism movement is distraught moms trying to understand how their babies ended up autistic. Attribution to genetic or developmental problems comes uncomfortably close to implying the moms had some role, while attribution to “Act of God” does not provide the sought-after solace.
    Someone (else) somewhere (else) must be to blame. Add a healthy dollop of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, and voila! a link is found.
    Tragic, and sad. I feel sorry for the moms, I really do, but nevertheless believe that this explains the phenomenon.

  14. milkshake says:

    The thimerosal vaccine-autism connection was once a plausible hypothesis. It was tested and thoroughly disproved – but as a part of pop culture it will live forever.
    (I had once a discussion about MSG with a health guru lady – and she was making these sweeping arguments about how poisonous MSG is for brain and heart. When I pointed out that there is plenty of free glutamate in tomatoes and Parmesan cheese and she said that I was brainwashed by the evil industry. She *knew* that MSG is very bad – she did not need anybody to tell her otherwise…)
    I grew up in commie Czechoslovakia and one of the few positive things that the healthcare system did there was a thorough mandatory vaccination for kids. Not only they eradicated the nasty childhood diseases but they also made tuberculosis an extremely rare disease there. (I was surprised when I came to US and found that people are not vaccinated against TB here – in part because of the vaccine manufacturer’s liability)

  15. CMC Guy says:

    Even though playing on stereotypes much of the autism-vaccine controversy in the public is due to poor Media reporting and Lawyers exploiting the system. Media types want simple straightforward answers (which most scientist can’t seem to give) and sensationalism makes for a better story. Many vigorous articles/stories appeared on possible or suggested links but when evidence mounted otherwise there was not the same effort at retraction/providing clarity. On the other end Legal merit is not same as scientific merit so if a lawsuit can be won or settled the facts don’t matter as long as a Lawyer gets paid.

  16. Anne says:

    Just to pick a nit, there is a school of thought that says that general relativity has failed a major test. In the strong-field limit it seems to be spot on. But when you look at scales any larger than the solar system, it seems to go grievously awry. Try to predict stellar velocity as a function of distance from the center for galaxies, or cosmological expansion, and GR comes out totally wrong.
    Now, the usual solution is to postulate vast amounts of some undetectable substance that passes through ordinary matter and itself without interacting. That fixes up galaxies; then to fix cosmology you postulate another undetectable substance that produces some all-prevasive repulsive force. Together this postulated “dark matter” and “dark energy” make up most of the contents of the universe, in spite of the fact that we can’t see it.
    There’s a school of thought that says that this postulated invisible stuff that does nothing but change how gravity acts on large scales is hokum, the kind of bogus nonsense that gets made up to try and paper over the cracks in a theory that doesn’t work.
    Personally, I think they’re wrong; there are some astonishing weak lensing images that map the dark matter in colliding galaxies and show that it has a complicated structure that makes sense for colliding dark matter halos. Explaining that structure with a modified theory of gravity is going to be a real challenge – but people are trying.
    My point in all this is that whether you believe it’s right or not, GR hasn’t been successfully tested on scales larger than the solar system.

  17. Anonymous says:

    “Now, the usual solution is to postulate vast amounts of some undetectable substance that passes through ordinary matter and itself without interacting.”
    Well, we call much of that neutrinos, and if they didn’t interact via the weak nuclear force then they would look much like dark matter/energy, interacting only via gravity.
    I think the main problem lies with cosmology itself, not GR.

  18. Ian Musgrave says:

    Anne wrote: ..anyone who doesn’t read Wakefield’s rebuttal (or Kirby’s post 2/11/09 on Huffington Post on the matter of Mr Deer) is plain lazy.
    Then go read the posts that show Kirby is just making things up (start a this post at Respectful Insolence)

  19. cynical1 says:

    Derek, I have read your blog off-and-on for the past six months, partly because a mutual friend who heard my ‘rants’ (while he was my supervisor) said that I should read your blog because we shared similar viewpoints. And partly because I lost my job as a medicinal chemist at my former employer and now, working as a contractor at a small company, I read and your blog while I eat lunch (where I used to read Scrips, Prious, and journals in that timeframe as an employee in ‘Big Pharma’). I have never been inclined to post a comment on your blog until now, even whilst reading all the dialog regarding job losses and industry waywardness that has affected me directly.
    However, in this blog, you state that within the scientific community, “Proclaiming that you disagree with these things just because you don’t like them, just think that they’re wrong, or don’t happen to believe them will get you nowhere in scientific debate.” I beg to disagree. I have worked in the pharmaceutical industry for the past 24 years, almost entirely as a medicinal chemist, and have found that “proclaiming that you disagree just because you don’t like them” is the modus operandi of the industry. You maintain, “Every question in science is open”. On a superficial level, that is true. But on a pragmatic level, there is nothing further than the truth. Sure, if you’re willing to wait until all the scientific pontiffs rest their cases, we will (eventually) reach scientific consensus. However, how much time has been wasted following dogmas that engender the careers of scientific sycophants who use their influence to push hopelessly flawed ideology to further their own personal/professional agendas? How many projects have pursued hopelessy flawed therapeutic targets or chemical leads from the onset only because that strategy would further someone’s career? Eventually, time will correct that stupidity, but at what cost?
    Let’s review your blog entry subsequent to this one. In the next entry, you remark that “Immunology is hard”, in particular regarding Lupus (SLE). I agree. Immunology is VERY hard. But here’s a little tidbit about Lupus. About ten years ago, a definitive study showed that the disease was irrevocably linked to EBV (Epstein-Barr Virus). It was done on pediatric lupus patients and the ‘P’ value had over ten zeroes after the decimal point. I know that I’m not a statistician; but I also know that one shouldn’t ignore that many zeroes after the decimal point before you hit a significant figure. This U. of Oklahoma study showed (IMO) that SLE was directly linked to EBV. Prior and subsequent studies have, without exception, shown the exact same thing. So the only scientific review at the time surmised that either EBV was a prerequisite for SLE or SLE made patients more susceptible to EBV. Well, EBV is transmitted via spit. Are SLE patients more likely to exchange saliva than the next person? None of us are immune. Riddle me that! That was over a decade ago. How much drug discovery has been devoted to delineating the cause and effect of EBV with Lupus? Let me answer: zero! Why? Well, it’s simply easier to ignore that data and push it under the scientific rug (with an ever-increasing bulge in it) and continue on with peripheral, ancillary targets.
    So let’s think back to the Nobel Prize for associating H. Pylori with stomach ulcers. I worked for a company that had a financial interest in having that theory disproved and I certainly heard that science discounted as rubbish at the time. I think we know where the chips eventually fell on that one.
    I just want to say that the scientific community is just as close-minded and ignorant as the heretics out there who use quasi-science to advance their propaganda. Ego, machoism and pretense are just as alive in the scientific community as those which would purport a causal role of vaccines in autism.
    Let me finish with the following:
    “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” (Arthur Schopenhauer)

  20. Derek Lowe says:

    I’d never heard of that one, myself (SLE and E-B virus). It doesn’t seem to have been forgotten, though. Taking a look at PubMed, and not getting past the first page of results, there is:
    Follow-ups from the Oklahoma group here and here, and work done by other researchers here and here.
    And here and here and here are recent reviews on the whole subject. So while this idea hasn’t taken over the world, it seems to be very much alive and under investigation, which I’d say is good news.

  21. Anne says:

    Anonymous @17: In recent years cosmology has gone from nearly pure speculation to a hard, quantitative subfield of astronomy. We don’t have a really good theory yet, but there’s a lot of hard data any theory of cosmology has to fit. But in any case, galactic rotation curves have nothing to do with cosmology; the need for dark matter manifests itself there already.
    I take your point that neutrinos, while clearly not dark matter candidates, show that particles with minimal interaction can exist; but my point is this: a theory has not been successfully tested if you have to make up otherwise undetected particles to make it come out right. Neutrinos provide an example of what I mean, even: at some point, people looking at nuclear reactions found some in which the mass of the products (including their energy) did not add up to the mass of the initial species. But everyone was pretty sure conservation of energy was right, so people just made up a particle they couldn’t detect. But until people actually detected neutrinos, you couldn’t claim that these reactions had successfully tested conservation of energy. Now we can, and in fact in a strong way: it made a surprising prediction, which turned out to be spot-on.
    So if we find dark matter and dark energy, then GR will be very impressively vindicated. But until then they have to be regarded as shoehorns trying to make the theory fit discrepant data.

  22. Hap says:

    The H. pylori hypothesis for ulcers seemed nuts, until someone actually tested it and found positive data. That Nobel Prize thing seems to indicate that the scientific community isn’t quite as closed-minded as you posit, or at least that it is convinced by actual data.
    The vaccine-autism thing has been tested, repeatedly, and found wanting, as someone else here put it. If you insist that something is true despite having no evidence of such, and lots of contrary evidence, well, I don’t think it’s the scientific community that is closed-minded, exactly. Also, while logic isn’t the end of wisdom, it’s a good place to start – and if, as with Ms. Barnett, you can’t come up with a theory that isn’t self-contradictory, it would seem you either have a fairly significant problem with your theory, or logic isn’t guiding it.
    If your theory is immune to logic and evidence, it may be applicable someplace, but not one in this universe. When people support an idea aggressively (and have the power to do so) and show demonstrable immunity to logic and evidence for or against their idea, well, things tend to go very badly for lots of people.

  23. inverse_agonist says:

    Following up on cynical1’s comment, whether science actually works the way it’s “supposed” to work is an interesting question. Scientific papers often are written as if the authors correctly anticipated the entirety of their results, when that’s probably not always the case. The experiments being described often weren’t done in the order written, and data may have been collected for reasons other than the ones listed in the paper. Hunches, whims, hardheadedness, an inability to admit error, and other irrational factors do influence the direction of science.
    Paul Feyerabend argued that quality of images seen with Galileo’s telescope was not high enough to justify his claims made on the basis of them, and heliocentric theory initially had less explanatory power than geocentric theory.
    Of course, evidence decides things in the end, but it seems undeniable that science as practiced in the real world often proceeds “unscientifically.”

  24. Dan says:

    Thoughts Regarding Autism Spectrum Neurodevelopmental Disorders
    Of these rare neurological dysfunctions, Autism is the most common of these passive developmental disorders. Autism is a disability caused by a brain development disorder of unknown cause, yet some suspect the cause is some sort of neurological dysfunction- possibly with a genetic predisposition.
    Usually, symptoms of the disease present themselves before the toddler reaches the age of three. Before Autism was more understood, others inaccurately labeled autistics as childhood schizophrenia or as having a psychosis or mental retardation.
    Out of over two dozen diagnostic criteria utilized for these disorders, eight must be present to be considered autistic, according to the DSM. As with all passive developmental disorders, the person expresses language, social, and behavioral difficulties.
    Treatment includes what are called psychotropic medications that delay the progression of the disorder, as well as relieve some of the symptoms of one who is autistic. Behavioral therapy is common as a treatment regimen as well. Boys get Autism much more than girls.
    Then there is the controversy between many who claim that thimerosal- a preservative containing mercury, which is a neurotoxin that was used in vaccines until 2001, was the catalyst for autism in children.
    Over 5000 lawsuits have been filed because of this belief, and some have been successful for the plaintiff. Yet most agree the correlation between thimersal and autism is void of scientific merit. Furthermore, the cases of autism have not decreased since the preservative was discontinued in 2001.
    Aside from Autism, the other four passive developmental disorders are known as autism spectrum disorders.
    Asperger’s Syndrome is more common than autism, and the symptoms are milder, as there is minimal delay in language abilities, if at all. What is expressed with Asperger’s syndrome is mild autistic symptoms. In time, the patient may express atypical personality disorders, though.
    While intelligence is within normal limits with the Asperger’s patient, social interactions and abilities preset difficulty for such a patient. As with Autism, medications and behavioral therapy are treatment regimens with one with this syndrome
    Rett’s Syndrome or disorder presents with not only atypical behavior, but also suffers from restricted physical growth and movement. There is cognitive and social impairment as well. The disorder affects mostly girls, and the cause is due to a gene mutation.
    Childhood Disintegrative disorder is rare, and is 10 times less common than autism. The disorder has a late onset with mild autistic symptoms. The disorder affects mostly boys, and regression is sudden and possible with this disorder. Skills lost with this disorder may be language, social, self-care, as well as play or motor skills. Decreased function or impairment with this disorder may include social skills and behavioral flaws. Central Nervous System pathology is a suspected cause of this disorder.
    Finally, there are passive development disorders that are not otherwise specified. This may include atypical autism, for example. Yet as with the rest of types of these disorders, the symptoms vary in their frequency and intensity, as well as the range of abilities of these developmental disorders vary widely as well.
    Medicinal treatment along with cognitive and behavioral therapy prove to be most beneficial for all the different types of Passive Development Disorders that unfortunately exist for unknown reasons, yet further research should be done to discover both the etiologies as well as more effective treatment for the Autism Spectrum.
    Dan Abshear

  25. Sili says:

    Hear! Hear!
    And in the interest of being polite, I’ll settle for being passive-aggressive and just point out that you left out another important manufactroversy from your list.

  26. > readers who’ve had occasion to deal with […]
    > creationists will recognize it immediately.
    > “Teach the controversy” “Let’s hear both
    > sides of the debate”, and all that.
    If the schools spent anywhere near as much time teaching actual science (chemistry, physics, current biology, anything) as they spend pushing non-falsifiable ideas about pre-historic events, you might have a point there.
    Darwinism isn’t a science. It’s a philosophy. The details change not in response to any new evidence or experimental outcome, but due to a shifting consensus of ideas published by respected thinkers. Debate is pretty much the whole deal with evolutionary theory: that’s where the ideas come from in the first place. Why *not* debate?
    Vaccination is an entirely different matter. You can *test* that. You can do blind, and even double-blind, controlled studies on vaccination and its results. That’s science. In the face of reproducible experimental outcome, what purpose would debate serve?

  27. Glen M says:

    Sorry that I am late to the discussion. Here is my 2 cents.
    While I was investigating neural networks a while back I came to the conclusion that there is an inevitable trade off. Especially in certain areas of the brain where ongoing adult plasticity is highest. Plasticity comes at the expense of stability. More interesting is that appears the process in non linear. So we have a loop in which new, undifferentiated neurons are excitable and driven to mature (differentiate). Differentiation confers stability. Stability leads to stagnation (loss of the novelty gradient). Stagnation leads to decay. Decay stimulates the production and, via chemo-taxis, placement of adult born neurons.
    The evidence for this process as being non linear is sketchy and probably relies on to much conjecture on my part. None the less, grey matter growth spurts are a documented occurrence around the age of puberty. I would argue that there is more than one such occurrence. In fact I would argue that there are several occurrences of such periods heightened neurogenesis. Akin to the boom and crash cycles that appear in most ecosystems.
    Where Autism and Vaccines fit in is that it is possible that there is a susceptibility during these periods (my best guess is that they last for 3 to 12 weeks) for the process to be disrupted with lasting consequences.
    The easiest way to see how this might work is to look at the intial period of network innervation that takes place in utero till ~three weeks post natal. Coinciding with the up-regulation of KCC2.
    Predicated on my belief that Autism is a result of weak central coherence (see Uta Frith), compartmentalization of brain regions and sub regions. What I have come to believe is that this is caused by a disruption of the Giant Depolarizing Potentials (via the latency of KCC2 up-regulation). Initial network innervation seems to be a result of GDPs filling up the Hebb constant without (or minimal) influence of activity based potentiation. This process would conclude with the up-regulation of KCC2, restoring GABAergic transmission to its classic inhibitory function as opposed to the excitatory action pre KCC2 up regulation. The idea that I had was that if there was a premature disruption of this early developmental period, possible via altering inter-cellular chloride levels, that it would produce a more compartmentalized network by preventing the formation of the long range projections. Or at least make them less abundant or more fragile. Disruption during this period theoretically might produce a network that, once the disrupting factor is removed, would remain highly plastic by means of increased adult (i.e. postnatal) plasticity and neurogenesis / synaptogenesis. Neurons connecting in absence of GDP driven, naive, period would be preferentially connected to more local assemblies. So the appearance of hyper-connectivity might be an illusion, with the sum of synaptic effecaies remaining normal. The more limited or non existent influence from other regions would limit the scope of differential modeling of cell assemblies putting them at a disadvantage with regards to stability. On the other hand it would also confer benefits within the localized areas, though they may not be apparent to outside observers. In a nutshell, it sounds like a potential model for an autistic brain. I like to use the analogy of a high school full of students. In one version students shuffle from class to class throughout the day, studying different subjects. In the the autistic version, the same number of students attend yet most do not sift between subjects. They mostly attend just one subject class.
    Interestingly,the effects alcohol exposure during pregnancy might demonstrate this process at work. It appears that alcohol can effect GABA(A)r’s (in particular the alpha5) and this might effect the innervation period and explain the similarities between fetal alcohol syndrome and autism. It is possible that is also explains the the relationship or role of estrogen, the window of opportunity for early intervention, seizures etc.
    Being that eGABA is pivotal in the process it is also easy for me to see that there are many possible ways in which it could be disrupted. Both in the intial innervation period and, if you accept, the proceeding spurts.

  28. Glen M says:

    Crap! I forgot my point.
    It may be that by ignoring the temporal significance of such events we are prohibited from getting any closer to the truth.
    It is not enough to say that agents, of infections, increases susceptibility. They may or may not depending on periods of transient susceptibility.

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