Autism and dementia are prevalent disorders in children and the elderly. In the past, we’ve understood them mostly as solely neurological conditions, but they are both more complex than that.
Medical professionals have traditionally seen autism as a genetic brain disorder. But the research has evolved and we now understand that autism is a highly complex and diverse body system disorder that affects the brain. Genetics and environmental factors are key components for the disease. (1)
The genetic component has long been established, but the genes involved are mostly associated with metabolism, not brain structure. Most of the genetic variants are related to folic acid, transmethylation, and transsulfuration metabolic pathways. Meaning, individuals with autism tend to have lower enzyme activity and they may not methylate as well, which is an important function for producing brain chemicals and hormones. (1) They also may not convert amino acids into glutathione, which reduces the body’s ability to detoxify and reduce oxidative stress. (1, 2)
People with autism also may have inflammation, thought to be caused in some cases by the immune system and autoantibodies, and the gastrointestinal system. The gastrointestinal system and immune system are directly connected and can work in a cycle. The ASD-associated gastro symptoms may be from an underlying inflammatory process. But the abnormal immune system could be from allergens that leak from the gut and trigger an inflammatory response. Those activated immune responses reach the higher brain through the bloodstream and create inflammation. (3)
Autism has also been connected to a magnesium deficiency. A small study compared autistic children to neurotypical children and found that autistic children had lower plasma concentrations of magnesium. (4) This mineral is crucial for body functions: it assists enzyme activity that regulates a myriad of functions in the body. It is required for muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, blood pressure regulation. Magnesium may help genes work better: it is crucial for DNA and RNA synthesis and for the antioxidant glutathione. (5)
Dementia is a broad term for a number of neurodegenerative diseases that are characterized by memory loss, difficulty thinking, solving problems, language problems, and mood or behavioral problems. Alzheimer’s disease is the greatest cause of dementia, and there is no known treatment for dementia. (6)
We do know however that certain things affect brain health: nutrition, environmental toxins, inflammation, stress, exercise. (7) Certain genes increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, though not everyone who has the gene variant develops Alzheimer’s. (8) However, we know that methylation is a key factor in turning genes on and off. (9) Interestingly, heavy metals and magnesium deficiency are also connected to Alzheimer’s disease. Higher levels of aluminum are often found in individuals with Alzheimer’s as well as low magnesium. (10, 11)
These neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases are complex. Science doesn’t completely understand the underlying cause of either of them. However, the connections to genes, environmental factors, and other body system variations, heavy metals, mineral deficiencies and other factors slowly give a greater picture.
What if the hidden link in these conditions was actually found in a systemic view of the body? Could reducing inflammation, supporting methylation and detoxification, and good nutrition involving anti-inflammatory diet, and proper vitamins and minerals help both of these conditions? More research and more discussion is needed.
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