The Age of Autism: Gold salts to be tested

By DAN OLMSTED  |  Aug. 29, 2005 at 4:06 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 29 (UPI) -- A University of Kentucky chemist says he will do tests to see if gold salts might help children with autism -- two weeks after this column reported that the first autistic child seemed to improve markedly after that treatment.

"You follow your nose in research, and when I saw that I thought, yes, this is a possibility," said Boyd Haley, a professor and former chemistry department chairman at the university.

Haley said his interest was piqued by columns describing Donald T., the first person ever diagnosed with the disorder. Donald's brother -- interviewed in the small Mississippi town where they grew up and still live -- told of his "miraculous response" to gold-salts treatment for a crippling attack of juvenile arthritis. He was given injections of the salts over a two- to three-month period at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis at age 12 in 1947.

The arthritis cleared up, and so did the "extreme nervousness" and excitability that had afflicted him, his brother said. He also became more social. He went on to college, where he was invited to join a fraternity; worked as a bank teller; and now, in retirement, pursues his love of golf and travels the world. Most of those early patients were institutionalized when they got older or lived in extremely sheltered circumstances, according to follow-up reports. (Donald did not respond to our request for an interview.)

Haley believes autism can be triggered by exposure to mercury; a mercury-containing preservative was in childhood vaccinations until it was phased out beginning in 1999. Federal health experts and medical groups dismiss the vaccine hypothesis, although it is championed by some parents and doctors. Haley noted that mercury could come from other sources as well, including a teething powder that was used for decades.

In this scenario, gold salts might help someone with autism because mercury and gold -- which are side-by-side on the Periodic Table of the Elements -- interact in a way that could de-activate ongoing toxic effects.

"Nothing has a higher affinity for mercury than elemental gold. They form bonds that are very tight," Haley said. Devices designed to detect and filter out mercury routinely use gold, he noted -- and would employ a less expensive element if gold weren't so much more effective.

In the body, he said, gold is probably "attracted to the same places as mercury. They would probably make it to the same spot in the body. It (gold) would probably cross the blood-brain barrier like mercury. There are reasons to think that if you put it in, it would chase mercury down because they're very similar in their chemistry.

"So you might be able to displace it with the gold. The chemistry gets complicated here, but gold does not do as much oxidative stress as does mercury. The gold isn't nearly as toxic as the mercury. ... It could take it off the enzyme it's inhibiting and reactivate that enzyme.

"So what I'm going to do is get some gold salts and take a small brain tissue and infect it with mercury and see if this takes it off. If it does, then there's something to this argument."

Haley said he was intrigued that the treatment may have benefited Donald when he was 12 -- relatively old for the treatments that some parents and physicians say are helping children.

"It doesn't seem to work with the older kids," Haley said. "These older kids are just lost."

He cautioned that Donald's case doesn't prove anything and that such procedures carry risks. The key is more research, he said, a theme echoed by experts at a meeting in Bethesda, Md., last week to push for more scientific studies by federal agencies. Haley attended the meeting and made a presentation.

"Don't jump on this. Be careful. You can hurt kids," he said.

That concern was underscored last week when a 5-year-old autistic child died while undergoing chelation in Pennsylvania. That treatment is designed to pull heavy metals from the body. Federal officials say it is not a responsible practice, although one advocacy group says more than 10,000 families have tried it, with significant benefit and minimal side effects.

Chelation studies were among those recommended by the group meeting in Bethesda last week.


This ongoing series on the roots and rise of autism welcomes reader comment. E-mail: dolmsted@upi.com

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