Graphic of a brain

Identifying Environmental Contributors to Autism and Dementia

Environmental exposures can harm both developing and aging brains.

By Michael Eisenstein

Providing respite for parents of children with autism was both rewarding and frustrating for Aisha Dickerson

As an undergraduate AmeriCorps volunteer in Birmingham, Alabama, Dickerson offered much-needed support for families. But one thing she could not provide was answers. 

“They always had this long list of theories about why their child had autism or what their child may have been exposed to,” recalls Dickerson, PhD, MSPH, now an assistant professor in Epidemiology and a Bloomberg Assistant Professor of American Health. Some theories—like links to vaccines—have been thoroughly discredited. Others, such as exposures to certain pollutants, have not been adequately studied. 

Dickerson decided to focus on identifying environmental factors that underlie the development of autism and other neurological disorders. When she started exploring these questions as a PhD student at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, most autism research looked for answers in the genome. Dickerson decided to look outward. 

“I would rather focus on modifiable risk factors, like things that you eat or are exposed to,” she says. “These are things that you can actually change.” She learned, for example, that proximity to industrial facilities and airborne lead pollution were associated with higher prevalence of autism. 

Dickerson has since broadened her research to adult-onset neurological disorders, and now aims to identify environmental factors linked with dementia risk in elderly Baltimore residents. Dickerson sees this as a natural complement to her work with autism in children. “Toxic exposures are dangerous at any point in life,” she says, “but the most vulnerable populations are the very young and very old.”

This study will also provide an opportunity to improve public health in underserved communities. Dickerson sees environmental justice as a primary objective of her research—even if turning data into policy can be a struggle. “Studies can get buried under political agendas,” says Dickerson, who is working with policy experts from the Bloomberg American Health Initiative to learn how to maximize her work’s community impact.