Identifying relationships between toxic chemicals and disease

The CDC estimated that one in 68 12-year-old children in the US are on the autism spectrum today, and the prevalence is growing at an exponential rate. An extension of the line on a log scale predicts that one fourth of the children born in 2025 will be diagnosed with autism, and half the children seven years later. In fact, Dr. Stephanie Seneff, of MIT, predicts that the growth could be worse than exponential, and that, already by 2025, half the children born will be on the autism spectrum, if we stay the course. She attributes the increase in autism and other disorders, including heart disease, as well as various mental and physical disorders, to the toxic chemicals found in the foods we eat, the air we breathe, and the materials that surround us. Dr. Seneff and her team make use of computer science and natural language processing techniques to analyze online databases, online chat forums, and the research literature in biology and medicine in order to discover patterns over time, associations between prescriptions drugs and disease, and associations between environmental pollutants and disease. At the intersection of computer science and biology, Dr. Seneff’s research not only identifies the relationships between toxic chemicals, such as aluminum and glyphosate, and disease, but also helps to develop online tools that can assist a researcher, patient, or clinician in the discovery process. While the perception is that such chemicals are harmless, her research has supported their detrimental effects.

Dr. Seneff’s approach uniquely combines computer science skills with a solid background in biology. While her research lends itself to applications that are highly applicable to everyday encounters between people and the chemicals around us, her research is planted firmly in the underlying causes of various diseases that have reached epidemic proportions. By discovering patterns and linking disease trends to toxic exposures to then apply her knowledge in biology to explain those patterns, Dr. Seneff’s research yields huge insight into the key contributions to our current health crisis, as well as pointing the way towards how to maintain good health. Her process- and systems-oriented approach ensures the simultaneous development of basic science and applications for consumers. Her research argues for a shift in agriculture towards sustainable methods that minimize environmental impact, combats the over-prescribing of statin drugs and other drugs, and sheds light upon the disturbing trends over time that suggest synergistic toxicity among multiple chemical exposures. With the firm belief that we need a radical change in food production and in the healthcare system, Dr. Seneff believes her work can help point the way towards that revolution.

Current research includes:

  • Understanding Disease: Dr. Seneff’s research has helped to gain significant insights into the disease processes of heart disease, autism, ADHD, dementia, diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, and gut disorders like celiac disease. Such novel understandings have helped to develop interactive tools to assist in the exploration of links among drugs and their side effects and to allow people to easily keep track of the foods they consume.

  • Statin Drugs: Dr. Seneff analyzes the side effect statistics for statin drugs, based on the FAERS database maintained by the CDC. She and her team suspect that side effects are significantly worse today than they were ten years ago, and hypothesize that a reason could be the significant increase in glyphosate residues in the food chain. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the pervasive herbicide, Roundup, whose use has gone up alarmingly over the past fifteen years due to the widespread adoption of Roundup Ready core crops like corn, soy, sugar beets, and canola oil.

  • Hospital Discharge Data: Dr. Seneff reviews the CDC's hospital discharge data. Such research has shown a significant change in disease patterns in recent times. She and her team have defined a new condition, called "Syndrome Z", which is characterized by a specific complex of conditions including vitamin D deficiency, liver dysfunction, and sleep disorder. It can be defined also by an overactive immune system, leading to autoimmune disease but protection from infection. Dr. Seneff believes that this new condition is caused in part by the pervasive presence of glyphosate in the food supply, as well as the air and water.

  • Pesticide Exposure: In collaboration with Judy Hoy, who has gathered data on deformities and organ pathologies in wild animals in the mountain range that lies to the east of an agricultural area where pesticides are heavily used on potato, alfalfa, and mint crops, Dr. Seneff is looking at the CDC's hospital discharge data to study patterns over time of related issues in human infants. She and her team are linking the two time trends and relating them to pesticide exposure.

Bio

Stephanie Seneff is a Senior Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She received the B.S. degree in Biophysics in 1968, M.S. and E.E. degrees in Electrical Engineering in 1980, and a Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1985, all from MIT. For over three decades, her research interests have always been at the intersection of biology and computation: developing a computational model for the human auditory system, understanding human language so as to develop algorithms and systems for human computer interactions, as well as applying natural language processing (NLP) techniques to gene predictions. She has published over 170 refereed articles on these subjects, and has been invited to give keynote speeches at several international conferences. She has also supervised numerous Master's and Ph.D. theses at MIT. In 2012, Dr. Seneff was elected Fellow of the International Speech and Communication Association (ISCA).

In recent years, Dr. Seneff has focused her research interests back towards biology. She is concentrating mainly on the relationship between nutrition and health. Since 2011, she has published, together with collaborators, 18 peer-reviewed papers (nearly half as first author) in journals in medicine and biology, on topics such as modern day diseases (e.g., Alzheimer, autism, cardiovascular diseases), analysis and search of databases of drug side effects using NLP techniques, and the impact of nutritional deficiencies and environmental toxins on human health.

Dr. Seneff always wanted to be a researcher. Even as a child, she loved solving tough problems and continues to enjoy detective work that is necessary to figure out the causal links between diseases and environmental influences. In addition, Dr. Seneff is personally motivated to study both heart disease and autism as her family and close friends have been affected by the challenges of such conditions.

In her free time, aside from research, Dr. Seneff enjoys reading, hiking and killer sudoku puzzles. Her love of the seacoast inspires frequent walks along the shore in deep contemplation.

Website: http://people.csail.mit.edu

Awards

1966: Sophomore Chemistry Award for the sophomore at MIT most likely to succeed in the field of chemistry, awarded by the American Chemical Society

1967: Junior Scholastic Award from the American Alumnae Association for the female student at MIT with the strongest academic record

1997: Elected Fellow of the International Speech and Communication Association (ISCA)

2012: Integrity in Science Award from the Weston A. Price Foundation