Friday, March 18, 2005

Trans fats: linked to autism too?

At what point will epidemiological studies be done to determine whether there is a link between the consumption of trans fats (AKA: “hydrogenated vegetable oil”) and the developmental disease labeled autism?

Item: Rats fed trans fats sustained damage to the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and memory, and showed greatly slowed learning and an increased rate of errors on a standard maze test. (1)

Item: “...autism is postulated to be the developmental syndrome of hippocampal dysfunction...” (2)

Item: “...anatomical abnormality [in the area dentata in the body of the hippocampal formation] within the limbic system exists from the earliest years of [autism], and persists throughout development and to middle age.” (3)

Item: Autism’s rapidly increasing incidence has been widely reported, alarming many researchers.

Item: Consumption of trans fats in industrialized nations has been steadily increasing during the same period as autism’s rise. “McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, and virtually all burger and fried-chicken chains fry in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil [...] Applebee’s, Chili’s, Denny’s, Red Lobster, and most table-service chain restaurants that deep fry do so in [partially hydrogenated oil].” (4)

At what point will consideration be given to the notion that synthesized compounds (those not found in the natural environment) may not be life-enhancing for our living cells and thus, our selves? What possible reasoning could lead one to believe that our physiology is capable of handling whatever chemical compounds are thrown into it?

Biochemically speaking, we are exceedingly and exquisitely complex beings, with innumerable finely-tuned biochemical pathways along which our development and homeostasis proceed, and these precise pathways do not countenance substitutions of inputs. The hallmark of all enzyme-catalyzed reactions, i.e., the overwhelming majority of living chemistry, is the absolute specificity of the enzyme acting upon the starting material. To convince yourself of this vast biochemical complexity, view these simplified charts of biochemical pathways:

Biochemical Pathways - Metabolic Pathways
Biochemical Pathways - Cellular and Molecular Processes

We should not be surprised to see a condition like autism emerge when we willy-nilly alter the starting components. Fats and cholesterol are essential for developing brains, for the cell membranes of neurons and for their myelin sheaths. Trans fats also alter the ratio of HDL/LDL cholesterol, earning trans fats the moniker “metabolic poison” from researcher Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. (4)

If altered starting compounds are consumed, by the pregnant mother or by the developing child, and become incorporated into the developing brain, the larger surprise would be if we saw no change at all.


(1) “Fears raised over the safety of trans fats,” by Helen Phillips, in NewScientist, 6 Nov 2004.

(2) Autism, amnesia, hippocampus, and learning. G.R. DeLong. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1992 Spring;16(1):63-70.

(3) Development of the hippocampal formation from 2 to 42 years - MRI evidence of smaller area dentata in autism. O. Saitoh, C.M. Karns, E. Courchesne. Brain, Vol. 124, No. 7, 1317-1324, July 2001.

(4) FDA Urged to Require Restaurants to Disclose Use of Partially Hydrogenated Oils. Center for Science in the Public Interest.


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