Professor Christopher Exley: The latest darling of the antivaccine movement

It’s been a rather busy last couple of weeks, in particular last weekend and the last couple of days. On Monday, I had to take my general surgery board recertification examination (or, as they call it now, the maintenance of certification examination). Yesterday, I spent a full day in the operating room doing difficult cases. Still, despite my exhaustion last night, I couldn’t resist commenting on a video I came across featuring an interview with Christopher Exley.

You remember Christopher Exley, don’t you? I just wrote about him last week. In I deconstructed his utterly awful paper, a paper in which Exley claimed to have found very high levels of aluminum in the brains of autistic people. I was not alone. So did Science Mom, who correctly described Exley as the “new face of the antivax aluminum grift.” (I sarcastically referred to Exley thusly: “Move over Christopher Shaw. There’s a new antivaccine scientist in town.”) An actual scientist who does the sort of fluorescence microscopy that Exley found his methods to be…lacking…as well, as did our feathery friend The Skeptical Raptor. Not surprisingly, the antivaccine movement jumped all over the study, claiming that it showed that the brains of children with autism are “loaded with aluminum.”

No. They. Are. Not. At least, if they are, Exley’s paper doesn’t demonstrate it.

Not that it stops him from “speculating.” In the very article I cited above by Christina England, New Research Proves Brains of Children with Autism are Loaded with Aluminum, there is a video of Exley himself talking about his paper:

I was rather puzzled at the source, I must admit, which is a French group Pour des vaccins sans aluminium (For vaccines without aluminum), although Exley speaks English. A quick perusal of the website reveals the usual litany of antivaccine tropes with regard to aluminum in vaccines, basically your standard issue antivaccine fear mongering about aluminum that have been debunked time and time again. Any scientist who is truly not antivaccine would not have anything to do with a group like this, but there’s Exley, appearing in a video by this group. Maybe he thought that because it wasn’t a group from an English-speaking country no one would notice.

Exley starts by reiterating the purported findings in his study. I say “purported” because, as the Blood-Brain Barrier Scientist, Science Mom, Skeptical Raptor, and, of course, yours truly have already discussed, his paper’s claimed findings and its actual findings are related primarily by coincidence. (Read those links for the details, if you’re interested.) After confidently declaring that the levels of aluminum in the brains of autistic people were “extraordinarily high” and “very high,” Exley claims that his research implicates aluminum as an etiological role in autism. Claiming that, before his current research, he had heard of claims that aluminum—or aluminum in vaccines—causes autism but had dismissed the science as not adequately strong to support a link, he then proclaims:

I have to change my mind on both of these. I have to change my mind that aluminium has a role in autism and believe it now does…Now I’ve often said when asked “Should we stop using aluminium adjuvants in vaccines?” I’ve sort of said no because I didn’t think that there was a safe alternative. (I’m not saying “safer alternative,” I’m saying “safe alternative.”) I didn’t believe that aluminium could be responsible for some of the effects we see following vaccination. But now, because I have seen the same cells from the ones seen at the injection site carrying a cargo of aluminum into the brain tissue of individuals who have died of autism, I would now say we have to think very carefully about who receives a vaccine which includes an aluminum adjuvant.
We have to think carefully, is this vaccine a life saving vaccine or not? If it isn’t, don’t have it with an aluminum adjuvant.

Yep, Christopher Exley is antivaccine. No doubt about it. He’s internalized the lingo and uses it flawlessly. He portrays himself as someone who thought vaccines were safe until he saw his new data. (It’s very typical of antivaxers to proclaim themselves as former—or even still—pro-vaxers—until they had a revelation based on either experience or evidence.) Even more typical is to describe a rabidly antivaccine organization like the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI), which funded his research, and the Dwoskin family, which funds the CMSRI thusly:

No government funded this research. This research came because of philanthropy. It came because individuals who wanted to know answers and were prepared to provide the money. We pay our government, and our government should really be using our money to fund this type of research.

As I’ve documented before, Claire and Al Dwoskin, who founded the CMSRI, are fanatically antivaccine, and they use their foundation to fund causes related to their belief that vaccines cause autism. The CMSRI funds antivaccine research, and you can bet that the Dwoskins wouldn’t have funded Exley’s work if they didn’t think it would be used to implicate vaccines as a cause of autism and all the diseases and conditions that antivaxers blame vaccines for. England herself, I note, not only demonizes vaccines, but is known for having promoted one of the vilest of antivaccine lies, the myth that shaken baby syndrome is a “misdiagnosis” for vaccine injury.

She interviewed Exley:

England: It has been thought for many years that thimerosal was responsible for causing autism; does your study put doubt on this as a theory?

Exley: No, since we have not researched mercury.

England: In your opinion, could autism be a childhood form of Alzheimer’s disease?

Exley: Actually, this thought has crossed my mind!

England: It appears that one way or another, aluminum could be responsible for neurological disorders to occur; why do you think that they manifest in so many different ways?

Exley: The result of aluminum toxicity is simply down to where and how it accumulates in human tissue. It is so biologically-reactive that it can disrupt many, many biochemical pathways. However, for this disruption to manifest as disease the number and severity of the disruptions must increase above a tolerable threshold and to achieve this threshold you need time (e.g. in AD) or unusual circumstances (as may be the case in autism).

Autism is childhood form of Alzheimer’s disease? Spare me. That Exley doesn’t immediately laugh at that idea and point out the enormous difference between the pathophysiology of autism and the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease tells you all you need to know about him. He’s utterly clueless about neurological disorders. As for his claims about aluminium (or aluminum, as we Yanks call it), he’s even more clueless.

No doubt Christopher Exley would object to my characterization of him as “antivaccine.” How else can he be described, though? He parrots antivaccine talking points. He hangs out with antivaccine groups like Pour des vaccins sans aluminium and CMSRI. He gives interviews to utter antivaccine loons like Christina England. If he’s not antivaccine, at best he’s a useful idiot for the antivaccine movement and deluding himself that he’s doing research that advances the science of autism. Antivaccine or deluded dupe of the antivaccine movement, it doesn’t much matter to me. The end result is the same. He’s just the latest in an unfortunate line of scientists who have either gone antivax or prostituted themselves to the antivaccine movement to produce crappy science used to support the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism and are harmful. Let’s just put it this way. If you’ve been appearing on Robert Scott Bell’s show and speaking at the autism quackfest known as Autism One, chances are that your science is pseudoscience.