Healthy Children Project
by Maureen Swanson, HCP Director

At LDA’s national conference in Anaheim in February, Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto presented her research team’s most recent findings on “modifiable root causes” of autism and other learning and developmental disorders to a completely filled room. Hertz-Picciotto is an environmental epidemiologist and professor at the MIND Institute (Medical Investigations of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) at the University of California at Davis, whose research explores the relationship between environmental exposures and neurodevelopmental disorders.

The MIND Institute team uses a broad definition of environmental (or non-inherited) factors that includes maternal and child nutrition, chemical exposures from pesticides, pollution or products, metabolic conditions such as obesity or diabetes and over-the-counter or prescription medications.  Hertz-Picciotto directs two ongoing studies of pregnant women and children that examine how these factors can interact with one another, and with a person’s genes, to result in learning and developmental disabilities.

Hertz-Picciotto described the studies to her attentive audience, and then honed in on several factors that the studies have pinpointed as playing a role in the incidence of autism, or other developmental, learning or behavior disorders.  Her work underscores scientists’ growing understanding that there is no single factor, nor a single event or exposure that causes autism. Instead, environmental and genetic factors can interact in different ways to increase a child’s risk of having autism or other neurodevelopmental condition.

For example, the CHARGE study (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment), showed that a combination of certain genes in the mother or the developing fetus and a lack of prenatal vitamin supplements taken prior to conception resulted in an unusually high risk for autism. This finding has implications for pre-conception medical care and recommendations, as well as for public health and food policy.

Hertz-Picciotto also detailed some of her studies’ findings on high air pollution exposures associated with learning and developmental delays, as well as exposures to pesticides and other chemicals, some of which can disrupt the body’s hormonal system and interfere with healthy brain development.  Another notable study result is the possible role of a sustained fever during pregnancy in harming the fetal brain.

After her presentation, Hertz-Picciotto took questions for nearly 30 minutes. The audience asked her about epigenetics, higher rates of autism in boys than in girls, and practical advice to lower risk factors for autism and learning and developmental problems.

In conclusion, Hertz-Picciotto noted that after a decade of research on environmental contributors to autism, scientists have begun to identify some of the factors at play, but there is still a long way to go in understanding and then modifying those factors to reduce the incidence of learning and developmental disorders.  The LDA audience expressed enthusiastic appreciation for Hertz-Picciotto’s work and her ability to translate cutting-edge scientific findings into clear and compelling information.

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