WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- Something startling happened to an autistic boy named "Donald T." 58 years ago at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis. He got better -- a lot better.
That's when Donald, the first person ever diagnosed with the disorder that now afflicts a quarter-million U.S. children, was treated with gold salts after a life-threatening attack of juvenile arthritis. The treatment at the renowned orthopedic clinic was designed to combat his arthritis, but Donald's autism improved remarkably, too.
He became more social. His excitability and extreme nervousness cleared up. He went on to college, where he was invited to join a fraternity; he became a bank teller and, now retired, is an enthusiastic world traveler whose favorite city is Istanbul. Most of the other early patients showed little or no improvement and were institutionalized or lived in extremely sheltered settings.
We learned about this a couple of weeks ago from Donald's brother, who we interviewed in the small Mississippi town where the brothers grew up and still live. (Donald has not responded to our request for an interview.)
Getting better is something parents of autistic children devoutly wish for them, yet we found no record of the gold-salts treatment and its apparent effects in studies of the first patients with autism. The Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist who diagnosed Donald's autism attributed the improvement instead to a "wise, intuitive" farm couple with whom Donald was sent to live -- at his suggestion.
But if medical treatment at age 12 made the difference, a couple of explanations suggest themselves. In the last column we looked at how gold salts might work -- in theory -- by suppressing a harmful autoimmune reaction in the brains of autistic children. That's how they suppress juvenile arthritis in joints.
Another idea suggested by a number of readers is that the gold salts might be a form of chelation, which draws heavy metals out of the body.
Chelation (key-LAY-shun) has been employed for half a century as a standard treatment for lead poisoning. Its controversial use in autism stems from the idea -- dismissed by medical groups and federal health authorities -- that the disorder is mercury poisoning by another name, caused by a preservative that was in childhood vaccines. (The first use of that preservative in vaccines appears to be in 1931, the same year the first child eventually diagnosed with autism was born. Donald was born in 1933.)
The rationale in Donald's case is speculative but simple: Gold, No. 79 on the Periodic Table of the Elements, has a proven affinity for Mercury, No. 80.
"As parents of an autistic child, we are very familiar with the benefits of biomedical treatment for autism, and we have seen a meaningful change in our son's symptoms after treating him for the medical condition he actually has, mercury toxicity," J.B. and Lisa Handley, founders of generationrescue.org, wrote Age of Autism.
"It is no surprise that gold salts improved Donald T.'s 'autism.' As gold miners as far back as the Roman Empire would tell you, gold and mercury have a strong binding affinity for each other, and the gold salts likely acted as a rudimentary chelator to help Donald T. detoxify. (Mercury is used in gold mining to separate small particles of gold from sand.)
"Luckily for parents, our knowledge of how to chelate mercury out of the body has improved since Donald T. was a child, and today we have prescription chelators with a strong binding affinity for mercury without some of the potential negative side effects of gold," they said.
"With names like DMPS, DMSA and EDTA, these chelators are being used right now to recover thousands of autistic children from their 'autism' by pulling the mercury and other toxic metals out of their body so our children can again lead a normal life."
The Handleys say upwards of 5,000 autistic children have been treated with chelation, up from 10 in 2000. An official of the National Institutes of Mental Health told The New York Times last month "it isn't responsible" to use chelation for autism. No scientific studies have been published, and just one -- funded by parents -- is under way.
Another parent forwarded us a July 29 news release from the University of Central Florida about what seems like an analogous process: removing mercury from water using tiny pieces of gold.
"In the near future, this process can be used to create water filters and reclaim contaminated water," the release said. "The first step to cleaning polluted water is detecting it. (The new) method uses gold nanoparticles, each about 2,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. First, a liquid solution containing gold nanoparticles is mixed with a sample of the possibly-contaminated water. Then, because mercury has such a strong affinity for gold, any mercury in the water quickly binds with the gold."
Another parent wrote: "I nearly lost my dinner when I saw your article. I was speaking last week with a neurochemist who was inquiring about chelation in autism as a family member of two adult autistics. He specifically asked whether gold had ever been tried since it has that property, of which I had previously been unaware.
"That's why your article totally stunned me. As with Patient Zero in the AIDS epidemic, this patient zero is very informative."
We also heard from parents who noted that along with autism, autoimmune conditions -- from juvenile diabetes to asthma to skin problems to celiac disease to juvenile arthritis -- appear to have increased significantly over the past few years.
"I have a son, age 21, with Asperger Syndrome, and a daughter, age 23, with Still's Disease, which is another name for the juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that you mentioned that this patient had," one parent wrote. "I have read in many different places that there is a strong association of JRA/Still's and Autism Spectrum Disorders in the same families."
Many parents also tell us that their child's autistic symptoms improve when inflammation -- especially in the gastrointestinal tract -- is treated.
Are any of these clues to autism, and are they visible in other early patients with autism? We'll look at that in upcoming columns.