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Friday, April 19, 2024

Pregnant mothers’ immune systems contribute to autism in children

Autism and schizophrenia diagnoses are at an ultimate peak. Fortunately, a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience and conducted within the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and Department of Neurology offers groundbreaking research about these neurodevelopmental disorders. Lead author of the study Kimberley McAllister, a professor and a researcher at the UC Davis MIND Institute, suggests that the risk of having a child with autism or schizophrenia might be higher if a pregnant mother contracts a viral infection.

The study is the first of its kind to help scientists understand how maternal immune activation affects a newborn’s neuronal and synaptic development.

“Our research indicates that immune molecules on neurons in the developing brain, control the formation of connections, and that process can be altered by a peripheral immune response during gestation,” McAllister said in an email.

The study focused on MCHI molecules — immune molecules found in the brain. McAllister and her team injected pregnant mice and rats with poly(I:C), a double-stranded RNA synthetic which mocks a real viral infection and tricks the immune system of the rodents. Thus, it activates their system without actually infecting the animals.

Myka Estes, a fifth-year graduate student in McAllister’s lab, gave the following comment regarding her interest in this field of research.

“I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder and experienced cognitive complications from the disease,” she said. “This experience piqued my interest in how maladies of the immune system can affect brain function.”

The team used two test groups of rodents. In one group, the animals’ immune system was activated, and in the other, it was not. The newborns of the animals who were treated with the poly(I:C) viral infection showed greater levels of the MHCI molecules found in the brain. Similarly, in the group whose immune systems remained inactive, the levels of immune molecules did not show significant changes. Such a method helped the researchers report for the very first time that high levels of MHCI impairs neuronal ability from the newborns’ brains to form synapses — chemical signals that pass between nerve cells. The team was also able to identify the first molecular pathway of MHCI molecules, which aids in synaptic regulation.

Though contracting a viral infection while pregnant is a risk factor for having a child with autism, it still is only a risk — and not a guarantee — that a child will develop autism. According to Judy Van De Water, a professor and director of the UC Davis Center for Children’s Environmental Health, a subset of the population is likely to have an increased risk of developing autism.

“Boys are at an increased risk over girls, and siblings of an affected child are at increased risk by 20 percent,” said Van De Water.

With the flu season coming up, pregnant mothers all around are warned to be cautious. As far as the study is concerned, the results are promising, yet it is only the first step in improving interventions for developmental disorders.

Research isn’t the only way in improving the lives of children with autism and their families. Kirkland Washington III, a behavioral therapist at Capitol Autism Services and a 2012 UC Davis graduate, shares his experience with working with children with autism.

“Patience is extremely essential and an understanding that who you are working with won’t necessarily understand what you’re asking of them or be able to communicate their wants or needs at the time,” he said.

With the help of research and altruistic people combined, there seems to be hope to make these disorders less prevalent.

 

JASBIR KAUR can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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