Prenatal Ultrasound and Autism: Lack of Study

Caroline Rodgers, whose ideas I blogged about yesterday, wrote to me about lack of research on the possibility that prenatal ultrasound causes autism:

I have heard confidentially that applications for funding of prenatal ultrasound studies (not specifically investigating autism) have been repeatedly denied over the years — which helps explain the great paucity of safety studies, especially since the early ’90s, when the FDA approved an allowable eightfold increase in acoustic output. As recently as this year, funding was denied an ambitious, multi-site study that would have investigated if there was a relationship between ultrasound and autism.

In 2006 when Yale neuroscientist Pasko Rakic announced the results of his study that found prenatal ultrasound interrupted neuronal migration in mice in a way that was consistent with the brains of autopsied autistics, I was surprised that several scientists, including Rakic, did their best to downplay the results. At the time, Rakic was one of many of Autism Speaks’s scientific advisors.

I have spoken with various people throughout the NIH about my concerns [about ultrasound]. They all pointed to various large studies they believe are investigating ultrasound as a possible environmental cause of autism — most recently, the National Children’s Study and EARLI, but when I tracked down the study designs, it turned out that ultrasound is not being studied.

In a report at the time Rakic’s study was published, he indeed downplayed the results:

Dr. Pasko Rakic, chairman of the Yale department of neurobiology and leader of the study, was quick to offer parents reassurance about the safety of ultrasound — done for the proper reasons — in human pregnancies.

“If I had a daughter and she was pregnant, I would recommend she had it for medical reasons,” Rakic said.

Another researcher agreed:

“I couldn’t agree with him more,” said Dr. Joshua Copel, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale and spokesman for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG). He was not involved in the study. . .

The researchers noted that mice are very different from humans, so the results of their study must be interpreted with caution.

“The forms of migration [of brain cells] and the timing of migration differ in primates like humans than in mice,” Copel said. “In humans, there is a much longer period in which neurons [nerve cells] are migrating.”

Does that sound “very different”?

6 Replies to “Prenatal Ultrasound and Autism: Lack of Study”

  1. Well, if someone “20 years experience as an editor in daily and weekly journalism” (her bio from Midwifery Today) disagrees with some prominent researchers in neurobiology and obstetrics from a backwards school like Yale … our instinct should be to trust the editor over the two people who have spent their life studying the subject. Obviously.

    (Rodgers also compares herself to Einstein. Seriously.)

    And if it doesn’t sound “very different”, it means that Copel is having a hard time dumbing it down for us. Ask him to provide the information like he would to one of his grad students. Sure, it might take you eight years before you can figure out how to digest it properly, but at least you won’t think that he’s BS-ing you.

    Two experts believe the correlation is noise in the data.
    One complete non-expert thinks that there’s something there.

    The math is simple.

  2. “If it doesn’t sound “very different” it means that Copel is having a hard time dumbing it down for us.” Sure about that?

    I have no idea what you mean about a “correlation” (what correlation?) being noise.

    Have you heard the term “praise with faint damn”? If all you can say against Rodgers’s case is that she compared herself to Einstein and has less credentials than a Yale professor, you make her case sound very good.

  3. Sorry — but the Yale professors are pointing out that mouse brains develop very differently from human brains.

    Given the end result — most of us are smarter than the average mouse — that seems quite fair. Can mice even be autistic?

    Rodgers is using the difference in Autism rates amongst black, white and hispanic populations to claim that Autism is caused by ultrasounds.

    She does not attempt to control for any factors, whatsoever. Using her arguments, I can compare black and white populations and conclude that sickle cell anemia can be prevented by increased exposure to ultrasounds.

    The difference between these populations is more than just a difference in access to medical care. Medical care amounts to more than just ultrasounds. The link is so tenuous to be laughable.

    And people who understand how a fetus develops, how a brain develops, and how an ultrasound works find the theory too laughable to investigate.

    The cause for austism is unknown. Hard to think that a neurobiologist would not be interested in discovering it. And yet, despite having already done work on ultrasound and brain development, he laughs off the idea instead.

    The bottom line is that Rodgers has identified that different ethnic groups within the United States have different rates of autism. That suggests that there are genetic factors involved. Instead, she made some sort of leap to ultrasounds; but that’s most certainly not what the evidence appears to suggest.

    Then add in a few easily found facts:

    1. A healthy pregnant woman with a normal pregnancy should receive 2-4 ultrasounds, depending on how early she began her care, and where she is.

    2. Ultrasounds have been standard for pregnant women (in the Industrialized world) since the late 1960s.

    So why the recent spike in autism diagnoses?

  4. “The Yale professors are pointing out that mouse brains develop very differently than human brains.” I would use the verb “claiming” rather than “pointing out” but since you seem to agree with them, please tell me: what are the similarities and differences in development?

    Your distortion of Rodgers’s argument is extreme. The notion that ultrasound may be dangerous is far from “laughable”. Rakic did his study to investigate that very possibility. “She does not attempt to control any factors” — please read my post and you will see that I say that the localized correlation she noticed controlled many factors. Her argument has a lot more to it than comparison of different ethnic groups.

    Why the recent increase in autism? Prenatal ultrasound has been increasing and the dose has been increasing — that’s one possible answer. If you think prenatal ultrasound exposure for pregnant women in the industrialized world has been constant “since the late 1960s” you are wrong.

  5. “THEY” made fun of Semmelweiss also and denied any connection between unwashed hands and childbed fever (post partum sepsis). I think I read that he (Semmelweiss) eventually comitted suicide because of the ridicule about his theory.
    I think demographic studies would be the easiest line to pursue to establish a connection, e.g. the incidence of autism in primitive peoples, those whose prenatal care was done by midwives and who received no prenatal ultrasound scans etc. vs. those who had multiple scans for whatever reason especially when done in the first trimester.

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