The role of thimerosal containing vaccines in the development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been an area of intense debate, as has the presence of mercury dental amalgams and fish ingestion by pregnant mothers. We studied the effects of thimerosal on cell proliferation and mitochondrial function from B-lymphocytes taken from individuals with autism, their nonautistic twins, and their nontwin siblings. Eleven families were examined and compared to matched controls. B-cells were grown with increasing levels of thimerosal, and various assays (LDH, XTT, DCFH, etc.) were performed to examine the effects on cellular proliferation and mitochondrial function. A subpopulation of eight individuals (4 ASD, 2 twins, and 2 siblings) from four of the families showed thimerosal hypersensitivity, whereas none of the control individuals displayed this response. The thimerosal concentration required to inhibit cell proliferation in these individuals was only 40% of controls. Cells hypersensitive to thimerosal also had higher levels of oxidative stress markers, protein carbonyls, and oxidant generation. This suggests certain individuals with a mild mitochondrial defect may be highly susceptible to mitochondrial specific toxins like the vaccine preservative thimerosal.
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