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Fungicide chemicals found to produce autism-like symptoms in animal studies, causing inflammation of the nervous system


(NaturalNews) Modern fungicides that coat common fruits and vegetables have been shown to trigger gene changes in neurons similar to those of people afflicted by autism and Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill conducted the study in an effort to
provide insight into the environmental substances that contribute to autism. The team's work, published in the journal Nature Communications, highlights an innovative way to narrow in on chemicals that could impact the normal functioning of the brain.

Autism spectrum disorders are a class of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect about one out of 100 children. Core symptoms of autism include difficulties with communication and social interactions, obsessive interests and repetitive behaviors.

Mark Zylka, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor at the UNC Neuroscience Center, and colleagues, exposed the brain cells of mice to more than 300 different pesticides and fungicides. The researchers then sequenced the RNA from these neurons to decipher which genes were affected by the chemicals. A network of computer programs helped the team establish which chemicals might cause gene expressions associated with autism.

"Based on RNA sequencing, we describe six groups of chemicals," Zylka said in a press statement. "We found that chemicals within each group altered expression in a common manner. One of these groups of chemicals altered the levels of many of the same genes that are altered in the brains of people with autism or Alzheimer's disease."

Pesticides, fungicides, food and autism

Through this work, the researchers were able to identify six groups of chemicals that produce gene expressions similar to people with autism. The chemicals included both pesticides and fungicides. The fungicides, called strobilurins, made their way into the U.S. food supply towards the end of the 20th century, just before data revealed that there had been a massive spike in autism. The fungicides in the class included pyraclostrobin, trifloxystrobin, fenamidone, famoxadone, azoxystrobin, fluoxastrobin and kresoxim-methyl, according to Inquisitr.

"We cannot say that these chemicals cause these conditions in people," Zylka noted. "Many additional studies will be needed to determine if any of these chemicals represent real risks to the human brain."

In particular, the researchers found that these chemicals reduced the expression of genes that play a pivotal role in communication between neurons. Whenever certain genes are not expressed, they can interfere with the normal functioning of the brain. In addition, the team found that these chemicals caused an increase in genes believed to trigger inflammation in the nervous system, otherwise known as neuroinflammation, which is often seen in autism and neurodegenerative disorders. Furthermore, the fungicides increased the production of free radicals, which damage cells and obstruct neuron microtubules.

"Disrupting microtubules affects the function of synapses in mature neurons and can impair the movement of cells as the brain develops," Zylka explained. "We know that deficits in neuron migration can lead to neurodevelopmental abnormalities. We have not yet evaluated whether these chemicals impair brain development in animal models or people."

Impact on the developing brain

Jeannie T. Lee, MD, PhD, Professor of Genetics and Pathology at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the study, commented on the significance of the research:

"This is a very important study that should serve as a wake-up call to regulatory agencies and the general medical community. The work is timely and has wide-ranging implications not only for diseases like autism, Parkinson's, and cancer, but also for the health of future generations. I suspect that a number of these chemicals will turn out to have effects on transgenerational inheritance."

Adding to these remarks, Carol Povey, director of the Centre for Autism at the National Autistic Society, told the Guardian:

"This new study confirms again that the causes of autism involve many complex and interacting factors, including genetics, the environment and the development of the brain.

"We urge that the results of this study are digested thoughtfully, and that people do not worry unnecessarily. As the author has made clear, this study absolutely does not mean that chemicals cause autism, nor can we understand fully the risks that these chemicals may have for the human brain until further studies are carried out.

"What is important for the more than 1 in 100 people on the autism spectrum is to make sure that they have access to the right support from people who understand autism. That's why the National Autistic Society is launching the biggest ever autism awareness campaign this Friday to help the public learn more about the 700,000 autistic people in the UK."

Zylka's team reviewed data provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, which keeps tabs on pesticide use throughout the country. Additional information was obtained from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of agriculture, which test foods for pesticide residues.

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Pesticide use increases alongside autism cases

Among the chemicals considered, pyridaben was the only one that decreased in usage since 2000. While rotenone usage has stayed stable since 2000, the usage of the rest of the fungicides significantly increased over the last decade. In fact, according the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the amount of pyraclostrobin present on food could be harmful to human biology. Other research has associated pyraclostrobin usage with the collapse of the bee colonies.

The fungicide class the researchers analyzed can be found on leafy green vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and kale. The researchers added that the use of these fungicides on other food crops is increasing. Previous research has shown that the fungicide trifloxystrobin can impair the motor function of rats for many days. The same affects held true for its sister fungicide, picoxystrobin, at even smaller concentrations.

"The real tough question is: if you eat fruits, vegetables or cereals that contain these chemicals, do they get into your blood stream and at what concentration? That information doesn't exist," said Zylka. "Also, given their presence on a variety of foodstuffs, might long term exposure to these chemicals -- even at low doses -- have a cumulative effect on the brain," Science Daily noted.

Zylka and his colleagues hope that their research will foster other scientists and future epidemiological studies to examine the impact these fungicides have on the developing brain.

"Virtually nothing is known about how these chemicals impact the developing or adult brain," Zylka said. "Yet these chemicals are being used at increasing levels on many of the foods we eat."

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