WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- A published scientific paper suggests gold salts -- the treatment that may have prompted improvement in the first child ever diagnosed with autism -- can affect mental conditions.
"Although there is very little modern research on these applications for gold, historically one notable use of gold was as a 'nervine,' a substance that could revitalize people suffering from nervous conditions, a term we would today call neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as epilepsy and depression," according to the paper, "Gold and its relationship to neurological/glandular conditions."
The paper appeared in 2002 in the International Journal of Neuroscience, co-authored by four researchers at the Meridian Institute, a Virginia-based non-profit group. It is online at meridianinstitute.com/ceu/ceu25gol.html.
"Neither the causes of the disorders nor the mechanism of gold is known, yet there are reports pointing to a possible involvement of naturally-occurring gold in the nervous and glandular systems, and evidence from historical sources of a possible efficacy of gold in therapy for neurological disorders," write authors Douglas G. Richards, David L. McMillin, Eric A. Mein and Carl D. Nelson.
The paper, which we've alluded to before, is getting renewed attention among activists who believe that most cases of autism are caused by a mercury preservative used in childhood immunizations. While medical groups and federal health authorities discount any link, these researchers and parents say a huge rise in autism diagnoses beginning in the 1990s can be tied to the increasing number of vaccines containing the preservative, called thimerosal, which is about 50 percent ethyl mercury by weight.
The earliest year for which we could find evidence of thimerosal being used in vaccines was 1931. In August, Age of Autism reported that the first child ever diagnosed with autism -- Donald T., who was born in 1933 in Mississippi -- was treated with gold salts for an acute attack of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 12. His autism symptoms also showed significant improvement following the two-to-three-month gold-salts treatment at a clinic in Memphis, according to his brother, who we interviewed in the small Mississippi town where both still live.
That caught the attention of Boyd Haley, a chemistry professor at the University of Kentucky and a leading proponent of the mercury-autism theory. In our last column we reported the results of a test he conducted to see whether gold salts would pull mercury off a chemical compound.
It did. Gold salts "can reverse the binding" of mercury to molecules, Haley said, adding, "This does lend support to the possible removal of mercury from biological proteins in individuals treated with gold salts."
The article by the Meridian Institute authors does not discuss whether gold might improve neurological conditions triggered by a toxic exposure such as mercury, and it does not mention autism. But it does provide a context for understanding why the compound might improve mental functioning and alleviate neurological disorders.
Intriguingly, the authors write that 19th-century scientists realized gold could help them explore the nervous system.
"The affinity of gold for the nervous system and the implications of this for the treatment of nervous disorders was remarked by (Dr. Leslie E.) Keeley (1897): 'The use of gold ... to develop microscopical nerves may, perhaps, be said to indicate that nerve fiber has a peculiar affinity for that metal. The application of it in solutions brings out nerves which otherwise would be invisible.
"'The development of lifeless microscopic nerves by a solution of gold may be in part owing to some of the recondite forces which cause the gold, taken into circulation, to reconstruct living ones.'"
Haley's hypothesis 108 years later sounds oddly similar: Gold, he thinks, might pull mercury "off the enzyme it's inhibiting and reactivate that enzyme."
If the idea that an element found in nature could affect mental functioning sounds bizarre, remember that it has already happened. The authors note that another element on the periodic table -- lithium -- has been used to treat bipolar disorder.
All this leaves proponents of the mercury-autism theory eager to see whether gold salts might be beneficial to any of the 250,000 Americans with autism, many of whom have not responded well to treatment. But they are equally concerned that a "gold rush," so to speak, could raise false hopes or -- far worse -- endanger children.
"Don't jump on this. Be careful. You can hurt kids," Haley told us before he began his test of gold salts. Even after it reversed the binding of mercury to molecules, Haley cautioned:
"The last thing the autism associations need is a bad experience on treating an autistic child. Extreme caution should be used with gold salts; just because the gold or thiolmalate (part of the gold salts) binds mercury in a test tube doesn't mean the gold salts will not be harmful to a young infant.
"Remember, the successful treatment was on a 12-year-old child if indeed the gold salts were the cause of his autism remission. Let's be exceptionally careful here and include every possible safety factor before we start any major clinical study."
One relatively simple test was suggested by a parent: Try gold salts -- which are still available by prescription -- on someone who has both rheumatoid arthritis, for which its effectiveness has been established, and autism, for which it has not.
The Meridian Institute authors made a similar suggestion. They proposed "attending to the side effects of gold medications where there is comorbidity of rheumatoid arthritis and a neurological, psychiatric, or glandular disorder. ...
"One could ask, do patients with epilepsy, depression, or adrenal insufficiency who may be receiving gold salts for arthritis show any improvement in neurological/glandular symptoms? Although neurological adverse effects are rare, beneficial side effects might be found."
As the calendar turns to 2006, the day may be coming when their question is answered.