A number of readers have raised concerns that gold salts -- which may have improved the mental functioning of the first child diagnosed with autism -- are untested and unproven as a treatment and can be dangerous.
"I think you should be careful about showing too much enthusiasm about gold salts," wrote Dr. Marvin J. Schissel. "My recollection is that they were used for arthritis about half a century ago, but not since."
"Don't rush to the gold salts thing," wrote James Blanco, who forwarded several cautionary studies, including a 1993 French report, "Neurological complications caused by gold salts."
"Gold therapy is responsible for many neurological complications," the study said. And in a September 2005 article in the journal Autoimmunity, researchers from the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, University College Cork, Ireland, noted:
"Gold salts have long been used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. However, the basis for their therapeutic immune-modulating properties has never been satisfactorily explained. Furthermore, treatments are often marred by the development of adverse immune reactions such as hypersensitivity and even exacerbation of autoimmunity."
The issue of gold salts and autism arose after our report in August that the first child diagnosed with the disorder appeared to improve markedly after being treated with gold salts for an attack of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 12. Donald T., as he is known in medical literature, still lives in the small Mississippi town where he grew up and first came to scientific attention in 1938.
The arthritis cleared up, and so did the "extreme nervousness" and excitability that had afflicted him, his brother told us. Donald also became "more social." He went on to college, where he was invited to join a fraternity; worked as a bank teller; and now, at age 72 and in retirement, pursues his love of golf and travels the world.
One autism researcher -- who believes most autism cases were triggered by mercury, and in particular a mercury preservative that was used in childhood immunizations beginning in the early 1930s -- tested gold salts in his laboratory following our report. He said last month that the substance can "reverse the binding" of mercury to a chemical compound.
But that scientist, University of Kentucky Chemistry Professor Boyd Haley, cautioned that no one should try gold salts to treat autism before proper studies are done.
"Please note that I am not recommending using gold salts to treat autistics, but it would certainly be worth a project if carefully monitored by a physician in a good clinic," Haley said.
An article in 2002 in the International Journal of Neuroscience, co-authored by four researchers at the Meridian Institute, made a similar case for testing gold salts as a "nervine" -- a treatment to relieve mental conditions -- and also noted the risk of side effects.
"The therapeutic and adverse effects of gold in living organisms are varied and paradoxical," the authors wrote. The primary side effects are dermatological and gastrointestinal, "yet gold-containing drugs have numerous rarer side effects, and can cause or exacerbate the same disorders for which they are effective in therapy."
For example, they noted "gold-containing drugs have been used in place of steroids in therapy for asthma ... but in other cases have been responsible for respiratory disorders and even death."
As for effects on the brain and nervous system, "Three forms of gold-induced neurological side effects have been recognized: (1) painful neuropathy, sometimes accompanied by insomnia and anxiety, (2) peripheral motor neuropathy, and (3) encephalopathy with symptoms including depression, delirium, and exogenous psychoses."
The upshot? More scientific and clinical studies. "This research has the potential for re-establishing gold as a significant therapeutic agent in a much wider range of disorders than those for which it is currently used. And it could help in sorting out valid from invalid claims of benefits from supplementation."
The authors said even the side effects might point to gold as a useful tool in treating neurological conditions if properly administered: "Adverse effects of drugs can be an indicator of related therapeutic effects at lower dosages."
Clearly, given the serious risks, figuring this out is a job best left to the experts.