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Autism, Vaccines, & Sleep Apnea: My Multi-Hit Theory

Posted Nov 17 2010 6:05am

I remember during M&M (morbidity and mortality) rounds as a resident, our chairman felt strongly that an error never occurs in isolation. He insisted that a bad outcome happens from a series of mistakes, oversights and lack of communication. Even in engineering or aviation, whenever something goes wrong, there’s usually a series of events that led to the final adverse outcome. The same analogy also applies with cancer.

Although vaccines were essentially exonerated by recent large-scale studies (showing that the rate of autism was no different before and after Thimerisol was removed), there are still many proponents of the vaccine theory. I think that there’s some merit to this possible connection, but not for the reasons that you may think. Let me explain.

You may remember in one of my previous posts, I described reading about a theory that proposes that since the Back to Sleep campaign for infants in the early 90s, the incidence of autism went up significantly afterwards. This campaign led to a 40% reduction in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). However, one of the consequences of keeping infants on their backs is to keep them in a lighter state of sleep. This can prevent proper memory consolidation and brain development.

Although it sounds like a feasible explanation, it’s going to be difficult to prove. Medically and politically, doctors are not going to retract this recommendation, even if it is found to be plausible. However, if you add to this the fact that modern jaws are smaller due to a more bottle-feeding and poor nutrition, sleeping on your back can definitely lessen your deep sleep efficiency.

In another recent post, I alluded to allergy shots aggravating obstructive sleep apnea, by increasing nasal congestion. Anything that causes inflammation in the nose or throat, including allergies, colds, migraines, reflux or weather changes, can aggravate more frequent pauses in your breathing, especially when in deep sleep.

The human voice box is unique in that it’s located below the tongue. This migration downwards begins at birth and continues until your 60 or 70s. Around 4 to 6 months, a space is created between your soft palate and your voice box, called the oropharynx. Only humans have a true oropharynx. Descent of the larynx is needed for complex speech and language. But this also predisposes humans to breathing problems, especially when on our backs. This is when the tongue and voice box falls back the most, due to gravity. When you add muscle relaxation during deep sleep, you’re more likely to stop breathing and wake up.

Not breathing at night while sleeping, from a brief second to 30 seconds or more, can be detrimental to your brain. The end extreme of this spectrum is called obstructive sleep apnea, but even multiple short episodes of breathing pauses due to upper airway obstruction can lead to various pathways that can lead to significant neurological impairment.

If you put all these mechanisms together, then it creates a situation where you can suffer serious brain damage. In most cases, you won’t be able to see any anatomic changes using traditional imaging studies, such as with a CT scan or an MRI. These are sub-radiologic changes that occur within the brain tissues itself.

Vaccines and flu shots, just like anything else that creates a mild infection, can cause swelling and inflammation in your nose and throat. If your anatomy is already predisposed, and you add additional variables such as back sleeping and bottle-feeding, then even an allergy attack could in theory cause changes in your brain that can mimic autism. Given that the total number of child immunizations has increased tremendously only adds to my argument. Not too surprisingly, there are also known reports of children who develop autism after a simple cold or flu infection.

Ultimately, it may not be the specific type of vaccine or flu shot, or even the specific materials that they’re made with, but rather the general inflammation causing properties of these immunizations that may be the trigger that tips children over the edge to progress into any of the autism spectrum disorders. I may be going out on a limb here, but in the big scheme of things, autism may even be a childhood manifestation of the same process that causes Alzheimer’s.

What’s your opinion on my thought experiment? Will you agree with me that autism has multifactorial causes and not just one trigger?

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