Mitochondria- The Untold Story and role in Autism

 MITOCHONDRIA- The Untold Story

(Disclaimer: An entire library could be written on these topics so inevitably, I had to oversimplify the information to show the over-arching concept.)

For anyone who has taken a high school biology class, they know that the role of the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. It creates ATP which is the energy currency of the cell needed to do most activities….and there… is where most people’s understanding ends.

Mitochondrial Disease:

A trendy diagnosis these days is “mitochondrial” disease. People with this diagnosis fall into two categories, ones with a genetic component that can be detected via gene sequencing and idiopathic, those who can not find a genetic element.  Idiopathic mitochondrial disease can be diagnosed through a series of blood tests that reveal a functional mitochondrial deficiency OR in some cases, a muscle biopsy will be done and the mitochondrial percentage can be calculated.

Through the work of Dr. Naviaux in San Diego, It has become apparent through that many children with Autism have mitochondria with poor function. 

The idiopathic mitochondrial deficiency patients often have other diagnoses of chronic fatigue, POTS (postural orthostatic syndrome), lyme, Ehlers Danlos, mycotoxin sickness and a number of other vague diseases that leave the medical community dumbfounded and frustrated. Often resulting in the patients being told it’s all in their head. (When your body isn’t functioning well, it’s an evolutionary response to have anxiety or depression… this does not mean that those mental states are the origin of the disease.)

Here is the ditty…. We need properly functioning mitochondria to DO EVERYTHING. If our cells are factories, mitochondria make the electricity. Factories can’t do anything without electricity.

Imagine trying to run a machine as complex as the human body with only 40% electrical capacity? Well, that is what’s happening for a lot of people with mitochondrial deficiency.




Mitochondria have two main roles:

1.    Primary- To make ATP by breaking down glucose and fatty acids

2.    Secondary- To be the last ditch immune system of the cell.

Most people already know about number one so I am going to expand on number two.


Three Levels of the Immune System:

Technically, the 3rd level can be lumped into the 1st level (innate immunity) but I think it’s helpful to think about it as three different entities

We can think about the immune system with three different layers, protecting the fortress of a castle.

1.    The outside wall- made of stone

a.    This is our innate immune system, consisting of the outside barriers like our skin and mucous membranes and white blood cells that eat invaders.

2.    The inside troops-The army between the wall and the fortress

a.    This is the complement system- this mainly has to do with creating antibodies and creating a global response to invaders.


a.   Most invaders are electrophiles, which mean that they like stealing all the extra electrons inside a cell (decreasing the voltage of a cell). By do this, the cytosol (watery liquid filling the inside of the cell) becomes more acidic. As the pH drops in the cell, the number of free hydrogens increases. When the number of hydrogens increases, the mitochondria sense that there is DANGER in cell and switch from its “powerhouse” mode to “Cell Danger Response.”1

b.    In the “Cell Danger Response,” the cell effectively poisons itself by releasing antiviral and antimicrobial chemicals into the cytosol, just enough to kill the invader but remain alive. The cell is unable to thrive or divide in this state, however. It also releases signals that harden the bi-lipid membrane to decrease the ability for more invaders to get inside the cell which effectively makes it less receptive to other molecular messengers (hormones) and therefore decreases its ability to communicate with the rest of the body. To add the cherry on top, it releases chemicals that go and tell the neighboring cells to ALSO switch into this mode.

c.   In the microcosms, cells begin to stop communicating with each other. This theme can be also be seen in the macrocosm of the individual, their systems (immune, nervous, digestive, hormonal) begin to not collaborate efficiently. In children with Autism, this concept can be extrapolated to explain why they go into “defense mode,” where they turn inward and have trouble communicating with the outside world.



Additional Musings

Also, I use the invader analogy but another way to think about it is the disturbance coming from the core. If the inside corridor is compromised aka a ruling bad government then all the different elements; the army, the people, the wall builders begin fighting with each other and don’t notice when invaders come waltzing in until it’s too late.

I applaud the medical community for being able to identify mitochondrial deficiencies, it is a move in the correct direction but it is also, the epitome of the reductionist model. By zeroing in on the smallest organelle with dysfunction, it is easy to label THAT organelle as the root cause. When in reality, it is that organelle’s response to its ecosystem.


SO WHAT IS THE ROOT CAUSE THEN? Well that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? From a theoretical perspective. ANYTHING that steals electrons from the cell could be a trigger that might cause the mitochondria to switch modes.  Things that steal electrons when in close proximity could be viruses, bacteria, heavy metals, mycotoxins, glyphosate and other pesticides. We must remember, however, that electrons are not bound by physical barriers like cell membranes. Things like electromagnetic frequencies from cell phones, the pull of the moon (potentially by being around other people with low electron counts, since electrons flow DOWN a gradient.…. Ok ok ok… I’m getting off track.) But the questions continue.



1. Naviaux, R. K. (2014). Metabolic features of the cell danger response.Mitochondrion,16, 7-17. doi:10.1016/j.mito.2013.08.006

For more information. Please read ‘The Wind and The Door’ by Madeleine