Autism and Schizophrenia
It is time to move on to look at some new diseases. The focus of this chapter is on autism and schizophrenia.
Autism is a brain disorder that begins in early childhood and persists throughout adulthood. It affects communication and social interaction. People with severe cases may have very poor speech, exhibit temper tantrums and be unable to manage their own toileting. Asperger’s syndrome is a relatively mild but common form of autism and many individuals can still operate at a high level. The incidence of autism is debated by experts, with most but not all seeming to agree that the rate has increased greatly in recent decades and that it may be about one child in every 150.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) website, schizophrenia is a severe disorder that typically begins in late adolescence or early adulthood. It is characterised by profound disruptions in thinking, affecting language, perception and sense of self. It often includes psychotic experiences such as hearing voices or delusions. It can impair function through the loss of livelihood or the disruption of studies. According to the WHO, there are 24 million suffers of schizophrenia.
Predominantly, this next part of the story involves a totally new set of scientists working in three different countries. The three groups have been led by Professor Robert Cade and Dr Zhongjie Sun from the University of Florida, Paul Shattock from the Autism Research Unit at University of Sunderland, and Dr Kalle Reichelt from the Pediatrics Research Institute at the University of Oslo, Norway. All three groups have interacted with each other and their work is intertwined. Much of it has been published in the journal of Nutritional Neuroscience. Other papers have been published in the journals Brain Dysfunction, Autism and Peptides.
First, a brief digression about Professor Robert Cade, who is a nutritional biochemist, now retired, from the University of Florida. One of his best known pieces of work was to design the sports drink Gatorade back in 1965. The Gators were (and are) the University of Florida’s football team, and the story goes that they became legendary for their strong second-half performances after drinking the electrolyte-andenergy- replacement drinks concocted by Robert Cade and his wife Mary. Robert’s job was to get the appropriate electrolytes and energy balance into the drink; Mary’s was to get it to taste acceptable. The royalties from the subsequent commercialisation of this product have been used to finance some of the work on nutritional links to autism that Professor Cade and colleagues have subsequently undertaken. So consumers of Gatorade products can take comfort in the fact that they have contributed to financing some very important work on autism.
Another brief digression. According to a 1998 article in New Scientist, Paul Shattock’s interest in autism research was originally stimulated by his own experiences as the father of an autistic child.1 There are several great stories (and I will recount another one in Chapter 9) where a parent’s personal experiences in dealing with a particular disease has led to a life-long dedication to finding scientific answers.
The key concept underpinning the work of Reichelt, Shattock and Cade, together with co-workers such as Zhongjie Sun and Ann-Mari Knivsberg, is that many of the symptoms of neurological conditions, i.e. poor mental health, are related to what we eat and how we metabolise that food. Specifically, the symptoms of autism and schizophrenia show some remarkable similarities to the known symptoms caused by opioids which can be formed from the digestion of certain foods, in particular those containing gluten and casein. The particular genetic makeup of an individual, combined with diverse but possibly unrecognised environmental events to which that individual is exposed, determines whether or not that person is susceptible to these conditions. These scientists have been able to show that many autistic children have high levels of BCM7 and other casomorphins derived from BCM7 in their blood and urine. They have also been able to report remarkable success with diets that are free of casein and gluten, in reducing both the level of BCM7 in the urine and the level of autistic symptoms.
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