A safe way to study fever’s

dramatic relief of autistic behavior?

reposted from: <http://corticalchauvinism.com/2014/08/25/a-safe-


Although dramatic relief of autistic behavior by infectious fever is common knowledge among parents and pediatricians [1–4], no one has yet investigated its physiology or biochemistry. Researchers hesitate to subject feverish children to the heat of a brain scan, and expose others to contagion. One approach may be to scan children whose relief by fever persists days or weeks after fever subsides [3]. Not only would this minimize the risks of fever, it may distinguish brain metabolites that vary with behavior from metabolites that vary with temperature.

Personal accounts by parents and pediatricians of fever’s dramatic benefit were first published by Ruth Christ Sullivan in 1980, in her column Parents Speak in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders [1]. An outbreak of respiratory infection in a Bellevue Hospital nursery provoked the phenomenon in a group of autistic children. Other physicians noted the stress of blood drawing could also induce brief dramatic improvements. Sullivan: “Though there is practically no mention of the high fever/improved behavior phenomenon in the entire autism literature, every knowledgeable person – both parent and professional – I approached for information knew of it.”[1] Psychologist Gary Brown reported his personal observations: “[T]he changes that occur in these autistic children are ... dramatic, more like a metamorphosis in which the autistic child suddenly becomes almost normal.”[5] Pediatric neurologist Andrew Zimmerman and colleagues confirmed fever’s benefit in 30 children with autistic disorders (ASD) – parents observed less irritability, hyperactivity, repetitive acts, and inappro-priate speech [2]. Martha Herbert, director of the TRANSCEND brain imaging program at Massachusetts General Hospital, is convinced fever’s benefit reveals autism is a “chronic dynamic encephalopathy” – not a permanent structural one [6].

Evidence of fever’s benefit was presented at an Autism Research Institute (ARI) ‘think tank’ April 2013. During the discussion one participant raised the question why fever’s benefit in some children persists days after temperature returns to normal, yet in most children improvements last only as long as fever lasts. “Are there two mechanisms here?” she asked. I suspected some children just produced more of whatever induced the benefit, so theirs lasted longer. But her question lingered ...

Improvements during fever might simply be due to high temperature, accelerated brain metabolism, and/or more brain blood flow, to judge from intestinal bacteria [7], and low brain metabolism [8] and blood flow [6,9,10] in children with ASD. Yet a sauna or hot bath rarely improves autistic behavior, although several instances were reported [11]. Eugene Kiyatkin (NIH) explained that fever increases brain temperature much more than ambient heat or stress, especially in children [12].

How might improvements persist after fever subsides? Microbes killed or weakened by heat may take days to renew or recover; increased blood flow may provide lasting nutrients and carry away accumulated wastes. Improvements may also persist via lingering effects of metabolic shifts that raise the temperature set point in the hypothalamus, or accelerate metabolism. But they can’t depend on the shifts themselves; when they persist, fever persists. Raising the set point, for example, apparently requires sodium ions to move from cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) into the brain, displacing calcium ions [13,14]. This exchange might be decisive in these children, in light of their frequent salt cravings [15], the benefit of fluid/salt diets [16], and evidence of brain calcium accumulation [17]. But can this sodium/calcium exchange persist after the set point returns to normal?

The heat of fever itself accelerates metabolism (11% for each ℃) – heat generated by shivering, conserved by peripheral vasoconstriction, and perhaps induced by internal agents (interleukins, prostaglandins) that heat peripheral tissues directly in response to infection [18]. But the primary agent that accelerates metabolism during fever is epinephrine (adrenalin) from the adrenal medulla, which mobilizes metabolic fuels (fatty acids, glucose from glycogen); epinephrine accelerates metabolism 5-10x more than norepinephrine [19]. Epinephrine preferentially stimulates sympathetic nervous system beta-receptors throughout the body. Under stress, β-stimulation shifts taurine and calcium into cells, e.g. heart muscle – calcium to strengthen contractions, taurine to distribute calcium in intracellular structures (to regulate its active concentration in cytosol) [20]. Intense β-stimulation, however, reverses this shift. Durlach and Durlach: “[I]ntense β-stimulation produces reverse effects on cell [taurine] influx: instead of an increase, a decrease is observed.” [21] Because calcium moves with taurine under β-stimulation, does the intense β-stimulation of fever flush calcium from the brain? Can this shift persist without high epinephrine?

Another mechanism that may explain persisting improvements is release of the amino acid glutamine from skeletal muscles as provisional fuel to compensate fever’s loss of appetite [21,4]. Plasma glutamine is low in ASD children, brain glutamine/glutamate also usually low. Children with high brain glutamine from urea cycle disorders rarely show autistic behavior [4]. Another persisting agent may be water brought in with sodium. Are autistic brains dehydrated? Yet if these agents induce improvements that persist days after fever – why don’t they persist in every autistic child?

Conclusions: A brain scan by magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) at 3 Tesla in a child whose dramatic improvement persists days after fever ends should primarily detect metabolites associated with improved behavior, not temperature – as well as minimize overheating and contagion. This scan should measure metabolites that may persist in brain or CSF after fever ends (glutamine, taurine, sodium, calcium, water) and not those unlikely to persist (e.g. epinephrine). What else should we measure by MRS if we can? Probably glutamine synthetase, ammonia, nitrogen, magnesium, neuro-transmitters glutamate, GABA, and serotonin, and arginine/nitric oxide.


I’m grateful to William Ellis of St. John’s Cathedral, Spokane, for generous support of these studies, friendship, and faith.


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