Does Mitochondrial Dysfunction Cause Autism?

Team GR: A major topic we’ve been following this year relates to our mitochondria and the relationship between mitochondrial dysfunction and autism. We asked our stem cell expert, Dr. Ernesto Gutierrez, to help break it down for us.

Mitochondrial Dysfunction: What Is It & How Does It Relate to Autism

Written by Dr. Ernesto Gutierrez, M.D.

At World Stem Cells Clinic we get hundreds of cases to evaluate every month. These are children whose parents are considering stem cell treatment and we need to first determine their candidacy and chance of improvement. And one of the things we are most interested in knowing is how his or her condition has progressed since diagnosis.

After more than 7 years of asking this question, some interesting trends start appearing and most of them can (and should!) be dissected and explored further. Today I want to focus on one of the most frequent ones: mitochondrial dysfunction.

What is the Mitochondria?

First, it’s important to understand what it is. The mitochondria is one of several organelles inside our cells. Their main function is to produce a molecule called Adenosin-TriPhosphate (ATP) which is what our cells use as energy. This is why you may have heard the mitochondria being referred to as the “powerhouse of the cell”.

Most people think that our cells require energy solely to generate movement (which is true) but they also require energy for EVERYTHING else they must do. From production of proteins and hormones, to the assimilation of nutrients for growth and repair. From making our hearts beat and our intestines move, to conducting neural impulses and creating memories.

Needless to say, the mitochondria is absolutely ESSENTIAL for life. There is no way we could live without mitochondria. It’s like a car without an engine.

What is Mitochondrial Dysfunction?

The term mitochondrial dysfunction is an umbrella term that encompasses several different “defects” in our mitochondria which lead to a suboptimal production of energy. In recent times, researchers in many different fields have linked mitochondrial dysfunction to incredibly diverse conditions such as parkinson’s, musculoskeletal and growth disorders, cancers and autism, to name a few.

Going back to the analogy of a car, we can think of mitochondrial dysfunction as a malfunctioning engine. In some cases, the car might not be able to move at all. But in most of them, the car might still run but not as efficiently. Probably using up more fuel, not delivering optimal speed and polluting a lot more. How much or how little function it maintains would be directly related to the degree and type of malfunction the engine has.

The same is true in our cells. If a person has a mitochondrial dysfunction, the mitochondria in his cells are (1) not producing as much energy as they should from a set number of chemical compounds, (2) not producing this energy as fast as they should, and (3) generating much more toxic waste than it should.

Once we put this knowledge together with the fact that our cells require energy for EVERYTHING, we begin to understand the severity of mitochondrial dysfunction.

When speaking exclusively about autism, recent studies have revealed that mitochondrial dysfunction not only increases the chance for a child to develop autism but that a high percentage (more than half by many estimates!) of children within the spectrum have some sort of mitochondrial dysfunction.

So, Does It Cause Autism?

The next question is: does mitochondrial dysfunction cause autism? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that if a boy’s cells cannot produce enough energy, fast enough to create new neuronal connections, he could develop important cognitive impairments. And if on top of that, the cells are generating more toxic waste than they should, he’s going to run out of antioxidants, enzymes and other essential molecules very quickly trying to neutralize this waste. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

What Now?

Talk to your doctor. Figure out if your child should get tested for mitochondrial dysfunction. The good news is that, while it’s not possible to get rid of this dysfunction, it is possible to provide support for the cells which in many cases can prevent further damage.

About Dr. Ernesto Gutierrez: 

Dr. Ernesto Gutierrez’s training background includes an MD degree from Anáhuac University’s Faculty of Medicine –the most prestigious private medical school in Latin America– as well as training in the US and abroad achieving additional degrees in Age Management and Regenerative Medicine.

He currently serves as Chief Medical Officer for World Stem Cells Clinic and Rehealth, the premier destinations for autologous and allogeneic stem cell therapies in the world. His passion towards the development of novel therapeutic approaches to treat previously untreatable conditions has driven the clinic’s team to develop a unique, safe and highly effective Advanced Stem Cell Therapy for Autism which has already changed the lives of hundreds of autistic patients and their families.

If you would like Dr. Gutierrez to dive deeper into some different ways in which you can support your (and your child’s!) mitochondria in a follow-up post, let us know! You can reach Dr. Gutierrez on Twitter and Instagram at @drernestomd or on his clinic’s Private Facebook Group.

Photo credit: Stocksnap / Michal Parzuchowski

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