By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 30 march 2012)
Doctor Megson (1999) has put forward the theory that autism may result from “disruption of the G-alpha protein,” which affects the brain’s retinoid receptors. Retinoid receptors are critical for sensory perception, attention, and language processing, all areas that are often deficient in those with autistic spectrum disorders. Autistic individuals are also more inclined to have relatives who suffer from night blindness (poor night vision) and other retinoid-based disorders.
There has been a dramatic increase in autism diagnoses in recent years combined with a decrease in the consumption of foods rich in natural cis forms vitamin A such as kidney, milk fat, liver, salmon, and codfish. There are essentially 2 forms of vitamin A, which have molecular shapes that are cis-trans isomers of each other. The synthesis of rhodopsin, which promotes healthy eye functioning, requires a particular cis isomer of vitamin A. The commercial version of vitamin A – vitamin A palmitate – contains only the trans form, which is not as effective.
Most children now consume more of the trans form than the cis form of vitamin A. Vitamin A palmitate, derived from palm oil, can be found in many baby formulas and low-fat milk. Beta-carotene, found in dark orange and yellow vegetables and fruits such as carrots, cantaloupes, and sweet potatoes, as well as dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, can be converted to vitamin A by the body. However, although they offer many important health benefits, fruit and vegetable sources provide the trans form rather than the more potent cis form of vitamin A. Additionally, absorption of this form of vitamin A can be compromised by damage in mucosal gut surfaces as a result of a wheat allergy or intolerance that is often undiagnosed, as well as a number of other health conditions. Overall, the cis form is far more effective.
Efficacy of Vitamin A and Urecholine in Treating Autistic Symptoms
According to Megson (1999), providing natural cis vitamin A supplements in the form of cod liver oil, along with the alpha muscarinic receptor agonist urecholine, has generated dramatic, immediate benefits for some autistic children, including enhanced social interaction, improved attention and language usage, better vision, and improved sleep.
Vitamin A supplements may be beneficial for children who engage in “sideways glancing,” as this may indicate improper function of the rods in the eye, a symptom of defective G-alpha protein. Case studies have indicated improved eye contact with supplementation.
The Autism Research Institute’s 1,127 parent ratings of the use of vitamin A on its own to treat autistic symptoms indicated improvement in 41% of cases, no change in 57%, and a worsening of symptoms in 2%. Of 111 parent ratings of vitamin A’s effects on children with Asperger’s syndrome, nearly one-third (32%) saw improvements, while 62% reported that the supplement had no effect, and 6% said that their children grew worse. However, ratings of cod liver oil supplements were higher, with 1,681 parent ratings indicating improvements in 51% of cases, no change in 45%, and worsening in 4%. For Asperger’s syndrome, 53% cited improvement, 42% saw no change, and 5% said that their children grew worse.
Research into vitamin A supplementation for autistic spectrum disorders is relatively new and further studies are required to confirm the beneficial effects of this supplement. Thus far, they are by no means proven, though there are some notable anecdotal success stories, and fish oil supplements can provide a number of benefits for all children, autistic or otherwise. Dr. Campbell-Macbride notes that “[Fish oils] are not only essential for the digestive health, but for the normal development and functioning of nervous system, immune system, sensory organs, hormonal balance and lots of other systems and organs of the body. Supplementing fish oil should be a must for any child, let alone an autistic child.”
Problems Associated with Vitamin A Supplementation
Vitamin A is toxic at high doses. If considering supplementation, consult a doctor to establish safe dosing before proceeding. Also, new evidence suggests that vitamin D deficiency may play a key role in autism, and vitamin A supplements can block the action of vitamin D. For this reason, Dr. Cannell (10 August 2010) recommends getting vitamin A from natural sources rather than using supplements.
For more on the effectiveness of various supplements for treating autistic spectrum disorders, see the main Autism Supplements page. For a full list of articles on autism and Asperger’s syndrome, visit the main Autistic Spectrum Disorders page.
Always consult a qualified medical practitioner before taking supplements or giving them to your child. Many supplements are toxic at certain doses and may interact with some medications or create problems for people with certain medical conditions.
- Autism Research Institute. (2008). “Parent Ratings for Autism” and “Parent Ratings for Asperger’s Syndrome.” Autism.com.
- Campbell-Macbride, N., Dr. (n.d.). “Supplementation for Children with Autism.” DietarySupport.com.
- Cannell, J.J. (10 August 2010). “A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and Vitamin D: Case Summary.” Vitamin D Council, VitaminDCouncil.org.
- Megson, M., MD, FAAP. (1999). “Is Autism a G-Alpha Protein Defect Reversible with Natural Vitamin A?” Megson.com.