Shared exposure to environmental factors appears to have a more prominent role in autism than genetics does. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are members of an important group of chemicals used in plastics, textiles, furniture and electronic devices. The global production of PBDEs has reached approximately 148 million pounds per year. PBDEs are used as flame retardants in plastics, to which they do not bind chemically. They can thus leach from polymers and pervasively accumulate in the built environment and ecosystem.
Cecilia Giulivi and her colleagues at the University of California, Davis are working to bridge the gaps between the fields of autism, bioenergetics and environmental exposure. Giulivi’s team, as well as others, has reported a higher incidence of mitochondrial dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders compared with typical children.
Because some PBDEs have the potential to disrupt specific mitochondrial targets, the researchers aim to evaluate whether the genetic makeup of individuals with autism sets a background of heightened susceptibility to environmental damage, namely to PBDE‐mediated mitochondrial dysfunction. They plan to explore the hypothesis that PBDE exposure, in the presence of genetic risk factors, may result in mitochondrial dysfunction. Disruption of mitochondrial metabolism may lead to neural energy deficits, contributing to the developmental and cognitive issues associated with autism.