With a nod and bow to Ira Flatow of NPR’s Science Friday, I want to use Fridays to pull together a little of the autism and brain-related science out there and offer a primer of sorts on the science of biomed treatments.
Since this is the first Friday Science post, I’ll start with a biomed basic: Oxidative stress.
This looks like a good place for a disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Nothing on this blog should be construed to be medical treatment. I am just a mom, albeit a mom with strong opinions and a lot of biomed experience under her belt. Please use this as a starting point in your own education and discuss actual treatment, dosages, etc., with your healthcare practitioner.
What is oxidative stress?
Dr. Weil has a lovely, easy to understand definition here. “Oxidative stress is the total burden placed on organisms by the constant production of free radicals in the normal course of metabolism plus whatever other pressures the environment brings to bear (natural and artificial radiation, toxins in air, food and water; and miscellaneous sources of oxidizing activity, such as tobacco smoke).”
From Wikipedia: “Oxidative stress is an imbalance between the systemic manifestation of reactive oxygen species and a biological system’s ability to readily detoxify the reactive intermediates or to repair the resulting damage. Disturbances in the normal redox state of cells can cause toxic effects through the production of peroxides and free radicals that damage all components of the cell, including proteins, lipids, and DNA. Further, some reactive oxidative species act as cellular messengers in redox signaling. Thus, oxidative stress can cause disruptions in normal mechanisms of cellular signaling.”
And if the whole redox, peroxide, reactive oxygen species thing is overwhelming think: rust, fire, tornado. Aging, damaging, destructive.
Why is it important in the biomedical treatment of autism?
Did you see the mention of cellular signaling? That’s what cells do to enable us to live as multi-cell organisms. They communicate, they coordinate, they delegate, the differentiate, they perceive, they interpret, they command, they direct, they re-redirect, they organize. One of the issues with autism is disrupted, non-coherent cell signaling, particularly in the brain.
Here’s a sweet little (ahem) diagram of Nuclear factor-κB cell signaling. (It’s interactive on the original website) And this is just one pathway. There are hundreds.
Now, imagine a little electron-sized tornado ripping through there. Might not work so well. It’s worth noting that treating kids with autism tend to have elevated levels of inflammation in the brain per this study on autism and inflammation.
Dr Woody R McGinnis did a fair bit of work on oxidative stress in autism. Well worth checking him out:
Dr S. Jill James at Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute has also done extensive research on oxidative stress in children with autism (and their parents!) and has shown that oxidative stress affects metabolism of glutathione and methylation. Here is her article “Evidence for Metabolic Imbalance and Oxidative Stress in Autism” that is not too hard to read, but still awash in glorious science geekery. Here is a slide show that condenses the same information in an easy to read format.
Most importantly, treating kids on the spectrum with anti-oxidants can improve their autism symptoms by normalizing metabolism and improving methylation and cell signalling.
How can I assess my kid’s level of oxidative stress?
Blood tests are available to check for levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS), DNA damage, intracellular glutathione and lipid peroxidation. There are also urine tests that measure the metabolite products of oxidation, specifically 8OHdG in urine has been shown to be an accurate measure of the rate of polynucleotide oxidative damage, according to one lab, Metametrix, that provides the testing.
What are some non-pharmaceutical things I could do?
Anti-oxidants! These are things that donate electrons so that pesky oxygen molecule doesn’t cause so much damage by attracting electrons off molecules that need them.
- Food sources: brightly colored fruits and vegetables, wild-caught fish from clean water. I’m fond of green smoothies: 2 c baby spinach, 2 c. fruit of choice, usually frozen banana, blueberries and mango. Add enough water to make it blend, maybe 1-2 c, then blend until smooth.
- Supplements: Vitamins A, C, and E, and alpha-lipoic acid. Glutathione precusors like N-Acetyl Cysteine and Glycine. According to Jill James (see link above) MethylB12 helps improve oxidative stress profile by improving the ratio of reduced glutathione to oxidized glutathione (GSH/GSSG). Glutathione is the “master antioxidant.”
It’s good stuff, Maynard.