Mitochondria are the energy production factories in our cells are responsible for producing 90% of the energy in the body.  They convert nutrients from our diet into energy in the form of ATP which “fuels” cellular function supporting growth and development.  Mitochondria are passed on maternally and are found in the hundreds or even thousands in every cell except red blood cells.  They are the only organelle (little organ inside cells) that contain their own DNA!

Mitochondrial function has been found to be abnormal in children and adults diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome and many rare genetic disorders.

What role do mitochondria play in autism symptoms?

ATP is the fuel or “currency” in the body.  Imagine you start making 50% less money.  You would potentially have to budget and decide carefully which bills you were able to pay.  The largest bill, like the mortgage, would be the most in jeopardy of not getting paid.  Look closely at the picture below.  It is, as you may know, a homunculus; a visual representation of where the energy in the body is allocated.

Decreased energy production will result in slow down of the largest areas.  And where do most children with autism struggle?  Eye contact, verbal communication and often fine motor coordination.  Improving mitochondrial function has been shown to improve language, social and cognitive skills for children with autism with resulting reduction in behaviours.  Everything we do in biomedical treatment is focused on protecting the mitochondria and improving mitochondrial function.

Many things can negatively impact mitochondrial function including toxins, harmful microbes like lyme, clostridia and yeast overgrowth, nutrient deficiencies, stress.  Dr. Naviaux’s landmark paper on cell danger response goes a long way to explaining what is happening in autism.  Damaged cells and cell membranes result in a panic signal from the mitochondria; which disrupts cell function.  Stop the panic

Mitochondria are fueled by nutrients.  Nutrients are absorbed in a healthy digestive tract and many children diagnosed with autism experience constipation, diarrhea, reflux or other digestive problems impairing break down and absorption of key substrates needed to make ATP.  Mitochondria function optimally when children are on a grain free, dairy free diet that is rich in healthy fats.  This is the usually called the paleo or cavemen diet but I like to call it living like a cavekid.  Exercise, diet (paleo or modified ketogenic diet), antioxidants and hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) have all been found to improve mitochondria function.

Mitochondria are damaged by harmful microbes that feed on complex carbohydrates.  The shuttles that deliver fasts to the mitochondria are also damaged by these microbes living in higher numbers.  Dr. Derrick MacFabe has shown that a clostridia model of autism can be reversed by removing complex carboydrates from the diet.

Supporting mitochondrial function improves motor planning (praxis) resulting in developmental gains including expressive language, eye contact, social interaction, cognitive performance and motor skills.