Objectives: The objective of this study was to compare early infant cognition and behavior with amygdala size and opioid binding in rhesus macaques receiving the recommended childhood vaccines (1994-1999), the majority of which contained the bactericidal preservative ethylmercurithiosalicylic acid (thimerosal).
Methods: Macaques were administered the recommended infant vaccines, adjusted for age and thimerosal dose (exposed; N=13), or saline (unexposed; N=3). Primate development, cognition and social behavior were assessed for both vaccinated and unvaccinated infants using standardized tests developed at the Washington National Primate Research Center. Amygdala growth and binding were measured serially by MRI and by the binding of the non-selective opioid antagonist [11C]diprenorphine, measured by PET, respectively, before (T1) and after (T2) the administration of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR).
Results: Compared with unexposed animals, significant neurodevelopmental deficits were evident for exposed animals in survival reflexes, tests of color discrimination and reversal, and learning sets. Differences in behaviors were observed between exposed and unexposed animals and within the exposed group before and after MMR vaccination. Compared with unexposed animals, exposed animals showed attenuation of amygdala growth and differences in the amygdala binding of [11C]diprenorphine. Interaction models identified significant associations between specific aberrant social and non-social behaviors, isotope binding, and vaccine exposure.
Conclusions: This animal model, which examines for the first time, behavioral, functional, and neuromorphometric consequences of the childhood vaccine regimen, mimics certain neurological abnormalities of autism. The findings raise important safety issues while providing a potential model for examining aspects of causation and disease pathogenesis in acquired disorders of behavior and development.