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Autism, Mercury and Melanin: Can You Hear Me Now?

Posted Jan 03 2011 12:00am

Meg preschool By Teresa Conrick

My daughter, Megan, appears to be an illustrative example of a fair canary overtaken by autism.  Here she is in a heartbreaking picture with her Early Childhood Special Education classmates in 1997.  She was the only child with autism. You may notice that I purposefully have blocked their faces due to confidentiality of IEP and special education status.  Some of those peers may be without an IEP now and doing well as they prepare to go on to college soon.  Megan, sadly, continues to be very impaired and as I have reported before, began to have severe seizures in this summer of 2010.

You may also notice that Megan is the only child who is visibly fearful, fingers in her ears, crying and exceptionally pale. This is not only a snapshot of my daughter's history, our painful history with autism, but a very possible snapshot of yet another piece of the mercury-melanin connection.  In 1999, Megan began to wear construction headphones as she could not tolerate the noises of the world. Today, in the midst of the autism epidemic, they are called "noise reducing" headphones and are available all over the internet for children specifically with an autism diagnosis.

Meg ears Noise and hearing issues are not new to autism.  From Dr. Leo Kanner, the first report EVER of a novel and unique condition, "Autistic Disturbances Of Affective Contact" written in 1943
Case 3: "Richard M. was 39 months old when admitted to the Johns Hopkins Hospital on February 5,1941, with the complaint of deafness because he did not talk and did not respond to questions."....."In September 1940, the mother wrote: 'I can't be sure just when he stopped the imitation of word sounds. It seems that he has gone backward mentally.'" 

How many mothers and fathers since 1940 have said the same thing?  That their child regressed, stopped developing language and stopped responding to others' words?  Megan did. "Bubbles" became "emuls", a nonsense word that should have been a clue to her losing hearing and sensory stability.  Instead I was told that she had "autism" and that was that. She then became almost mute except for crying and pained utterances when she was scared or frustrated, which was often. How horrible to see your child in agony at age 2, crying because a Muppet on Sesame Street is playing a cello, beautiful sounds to most but tortuous for her fragile ears. Others thought she was becoming deaf as she did not respond to her name.

As most know now from reading Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill's unprecedented, historical book on autism's roots in, "The Age Of Autism, Mercury, Medicine, And A Man-made Epidemic", "Richard M's" father, William Dykstra Miller, was one of the first to be exposed to an ethyl mercury fungicide, as a Ph.D in Forestry.

Our family has no connections to forestry but my daughter had contact with ethyl mercury numerous times as it was in her baby and toddler vaccines.  Another factor I have been presenting in my quest to understand Megan's symptoms is the connection of melanin or pigmentary issues. So I began to investigate if her auditory issues, like her ocular issues HERE , could also be involved as a mechanism of injury in her exposure to mercury.

First let's take a look at autism and the significance to auditory issues: HERE

"Student and Sohmer (1978) stated that all of the autistic children they studied had peripheral hearing loss according to auditory brainstem response (ABR) examination. Skoff and his group (Skoff, Mirsky, & Turner, 1980; Skoff et al., 1986) reported that 44-63% of children with autism examined by them had hearing impairment."

Auditory Processing Disorder as a Key Feature of Autism HERE

"Delacato (1974) documented how a child could be unresponsive to certain sounds (act as-if deaf), but have an exaggerated response to other sounds. Dr. Bernard Rimland (1964) indicated that his research found 40% of people with autism to suffer from hyper-processing of the auditory stimuli, or ‘hyperacusis’. From accounts, it appears that this hyper-hearing leads to social withdrawal, speech problems, and overload behaviour in the form of tantrums and aggression."

This research describes my daughter, but why would Megan be so affected? She is a red head and very fair skinned.  I have previously described her eye color change later in her life, so is there a connection to melanin and her many extreme sensory issues?  How is melanin related to hearing? From Wiki:

"In humans, melanin is the primary determinant of skin color. It is also found in hair, the pigmented tissue underlying the iris of the eye and the stria vascularis of the inner ear."

So stria vascularis is a key.  Can that be connected to mercury?:

Cochlear Pathology Following Exposure To Mercury HERE

"The sensory and secretory epithelia may become morphologically changed following the exposure to mercury chloride. The earliest and most severe change in the sensory epithelium appeared in the apical part of the cochlea, while the basal coils were only seldom damaged (cytocochleogram studies). Acute intoxication mostly affected both afferent and efferent nerve terminals and the hair cells, while chronic poisoning could also damage the stria vascularis.

Environmental Impact on Hearing: Is Anyone Listening? HERE

"Mercury . Mercury intoxication causes hearing loss in humans and animals. In 1953, a severe neurological disorder was recognized among persons living in the vicinity of Minamata, Japan, where mercury-containing effluent flowing from a chemical manufacturing plant into the local bay contaminated shellfish. Deterioration in hearing and deafness were reported among other neurological symptoms.  Early stages of poisoning may result in cochlear lesions, whereas hearing loss in the late stages of intoxication may result from neurological damage."

Encyclopaedia of occupational health and safety,   (HERE) "Hearing loss is described as a common part of the clinical picture in acute and chronic methyl-mercury poisoning. Both cochlear and post-cochlear lesions have been involved. Inorganic mercury may also affect the auditory system, probably through damage to cochlear structures."

Now a look at autism and its auditory dysfunctions
Autism and auditory brain stem responses HERE

"To study a controversy that has been discussed for more than two decades: whether or not children with autism have abnormalities affecting the cochlear nerve or the auditory pathway in the brain stem and, if so, to describe these abnormalities. ...The individual test results showed that more than half of this normal-hearing autistic disorder group (58%) had abnormalities of one or more of eight ABR (auditory brain stem responses)  parameters studied.

Brain stem lesion, occult cochlear dysfunction, and involvement of the cochlear efferent system are probable factors that can explain the ABR findings"

And related back to mercury
Introduction to neurobehavioral toxicology: food and environment HERE

"The ototoxic effects by mercury differ from the effects by many other compunds like aminoglycoside antibiotics and cis-platinum by causing the most severe damage to the apical cords of the cochlea related to low-frequency hearing"......."In addition degenerations of efferent and afferent nerve endings were found as well as vacuolization of marginal cells in the stria vascularis."

More specifically to Ethyl Mercury/Thimerosal:

Ototoxicity  HERE   

"Cortisporin Otic Suspension contains neomycin sulfate, polymyxin B, hydrocortisone, cetyl alcohol, propylene glycol, polysorbate 80 and thimerosal."............"Following the application of 0.5 mL of Cortisporin Otic Suspension to the middle ear of these experimental animals degeneration of all inner and outer hair cells throughout the cochlea, severe damage to the stria vascularis, and moderate to severe damage of the vestibular receptor organs were observed."

More digging brought me to an interesting connection to autism and again, back to mercury.


"Melanin Receptors of the inner ear, AIT and Metabolism- The area in the ear, called the stria vascularis, where melanin is found, is of special importance to AIT as it possibly represents both a locus of toxicity and a rationale for a probable mechanism for detoxification, as it is energized by acoustic energy, likely aiding in the restoration of auditory lesions through intensive acoustic stimulation."......"Larsson explains that various drugs and other chemicals, such as organic amines, metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, etc., are bound to melanin and retained in pigmented tissues for long periods. He stresses that the physiological significance of the binding is not evident, but it has been suggested that the melanin protects the pigmented cells and adjacent tissues by absorbing potentially harmful substances, which then are slowly released in nontoxic concentrations.

Long-term exposure, on the other hand, may build up high levels of noxious chemicals, stored on the melanin, which ultimately may cause degeneration in the melanin-containing cells, and secondary lesions in surrounding tissues"........"it might be one of the key contributing reasons why we see such significant sensory disturbances (ocular and auditory) in children with autism."

Very interesting connections. It is similar to the studies connecting melanin, mercury and the pigmented epithelium of the eye that I reported when examining information on Megan's eye color change. I am not endorsing AIT, though I know it can help.  Megan has done modified versions through school and any benefits were not visible for very long but she is extremely affected so it is possible that this is an avenue of hope that may be of benefit as a long term treatment.  In addition, it may be a glimpse of how melanin and mercury could interact within the auditory system. 

Here is an excerpt from a very recent study on autism and hearing
Malformation of the human superior olive in autistic spectrum disorders. 2011 Jan 7 HERE

"Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) comprise a continuum of psychosocial disorders clinically characterized by social difficulties, impaired communication skills and repetitive behavioral patterns". ...... "Further, there is ample evidence that auditory dysfunction is a common feature of autism. Our preliminary investigation of neuronal morphology in the auditory brainstem of individuals with ASD focused on the medial superior olive (MSO) and revealed that neurons in this region were significantly smaller and rounder than in controls"........ "Our studies implicate an extensive malformation of the auditory brainstem in the hearing and language difficulties in individuals with ASD."

But is this too, connected to melanin issues?

Auditory brainstem anomalies in albino cats: II. Neuronal atrophy in the superior olive. HERE

In a previous paper (Brain Res., 260:1-9, 1983) we reported that albino cats show abnormal auditory brainstem evoked responses that appear to arise from structural defects in or near the superior olivary complex. In the present study, neuronal cross-sectional area in brainstem nuclei was compared in albino and normally pigmented adult cats. The albinos were true tyrosinase-negative (cc) and should not be confused with the deaf white cat (W); the albinos are not deaf. Neurons in the medial superior olivary nucleus (MSO) of albinos were, on average, 41% smaller than in pigmented animals;"...... Several lines of evidence suggest that the auditory system defects in albinos are related to abnormal pigmentation rather than to other gene effects. It is possible that a subtle pigment-related disruption of inner ear development in albinos results in a central cascade of atrophic changes along the auditory pathway."

Is it possible that the cats of Minamata were the canaries to that disease similar to the fair redheads of autism?

It is unbelievable that the use of mercury, especially ethyl mercury in thimerosal vaccines is still happening as we go into the year 2011.  How long have the dangers of mercury, especially as a medicine, been known?  We saw many examples in "The Age Of Autism" book and I also came across this one while exploring mercury and its connection to auditory damage.  It was a warning back in 1829 yet somehow the mirage of safe mercury and denial of its harm continues today
On the varieties of deafness, and diseases of the ear: with proposed methods -1829 HERE

"MERCURY has been recommended, and still continues to be prescribed, by some practitioners, in cases termed, or mistaken for, nervous deafness. From long and extensive experience, I am satisfied that deafness, even if truly nervous, is never benefited by the administration of mercury, under any modification; on the contrary, there are abundant proofs that it not only increases the noises in the head, diminishes the hearing, and renders the majority of cases very difficult to relieve, but that this baneful mineral will absolutely destroy the hearing entirely, and occasion such distressing noises in the head, that the patient's life becomes a burthen, and no human skill can remove the continual confusion in the head thus created.

"Whilst writing this, I had a deaf and dumb child sent to me by an eminent physician. The child heard perfectly until it was more than twelve months old, when an eruptive disease took place on its head. A medical man, who resides in the neighbourhood of the child's home, about ten miles from town, applied mercurial ointment, which cured the eruption very speedily, but left the child totally deaf. I have seen several cases of a similar description, in which mercury applied to the head produced the same effect."......As to the general abuse, or injudicious use of mercury, there can be no doubt but it is the cause of the great increase of deafness, noises in the head, blindness, paralysis, apoplexy, and madness." 


Teresa Conrick is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.

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