Maternal immune response to fetal brain during pregnancy a key factor in some autism

April 17, 2009

New studies in pregnant mice using antibodies against fetal brains made by the mothers of autistic children show that immune cells can cross the placenta and trigger neurobehavioral changes similar to autism in the mouse pups.

A report on the research from investigators at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center published online in the Journal of Neuroimmunology expands on a 2008 report from the same team showing that mothers of autistic children tested positive for fetal brain . Antibodies are proteins the body naturally makes to attack foreign tissues, viruses or bacteria. Because a growing is not "rejected" by the mother's even though some of its DNA is "foreign" (from the father), scientists have long suspected that some combination of maternal and fetal biological protection is at work. The new research from Hopkins, however, suggests that the protective system is not perfect and that antibodies are not only made but are re-circulated back to the fetus through the placenta, possibly triggering inflammation in the brain and leading to a cascade of neurological changes resulting in neurodevelopmental disorders, such as .

Despite this new evidence, the researchers warn against over-interpreting the results, saying prenatal exposure to maternal antibodies is likely only one of several factors implicated in autism.

"Autism is a complex disorder and it would be naďve to assume there's a single mechanism that can cause it," says Harvey Singer, M.D., director of pediatric neurology at Hopkins Children's. "It's most likely the cumulative result of several factors, including genes, metabolism and environment. We believe we have identified one of these factors."

For the new study, Singer and colleagues injected antibodies from mothers of autistic children into pregnant mice and used several standard neurobehavioral tests to identify neurobehavioral changes in the pups. As control groups, they used offspring of mice injected with antibodies from mothers of nonautistic children and the offspring of mice who received no injections.

"Comparing mice to humans is tricky, and we should be cautious anytime we do so, but our findings strongly suggest that the behaviors we observed in the offspring of mice injected with fetal brain antibodies from human mothers did behave in a manner that mimics some behaviors seen in people with autism," Singer says.

Following the mice throughout adolescence (four to six weeks) and adulthood (four to six months), the Hopkins team measured novelty-seeking (or willingness to explore unfamiliar open spaces), response to loud noise, sociability and anxiety-like behavior.

Overall, mice exposed prenatally to antibodies from mothers of autistic children behaved more anxiously, spent less time in open spaces when placed in an elevated maze, and were overall more hyperactive, fretting back and forth between open and closed spaces in the maze and in an open field environment, both behaviors that in humans would equal abnormal activity.

Again, compared to control mice, the mice exposed to antibodies from mothers of autistic children were also more easily startled by loud noises and were less social, choosing to spend more time visiting an empty cage rather than one with a live mouse in it.

The differences among groups were less pronounced in the adolescent mice, but as the mice aged, researchers observed an increase in autism-like symptoms, a finding consistent with neurodevelopmental disorders in humans, who tend to develop new or more pronounced symptoms over time, investigators point out.

Comparing brain tissues from all groups of mice, researchers observed markedly more activation of microglia -- immune cells in the central nervous system activated during - in the brain tissues of the group injected prenatally with antibodies from mothers of autistic children.

In further studies, the Hopkins scientists hope to identify which specific brain proteins the antibodies affect and to correlate changes in brain anatomy and function to changes in behavior.

Ultimately, researchers hope to develop ways to detect and analyze culprit antibodies in pregnant women and prevent them from binding to fetal brain proteins.

The causes of autism, a disorder manifesting itself with a range of brain problems, impaired social interactions, communication disorders and repetitive behaviors, remain unknown for an estimated 90 percent of children diagnosed with it. Genetic, metabolic and environmental factors have been implicated in various studies of autism, which affects an estimated 1 in 150 U.S. children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source: Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

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5 / 5 (1) Apr 18, 2009
I think there has been reports that the brain blood barrier is modified by radiation from example cell phones. Similarly the placentas blood barrier might be affected by some environmental issues? And maybe allow in certain situations more exchange of substances between mother and fetus. And in case of antibodies that would be harmful. So probably more research at placentas barrier properties would be helpful.

Also if antibodies are responsible for effects like autism, then there should be correlation between birth order and the severity of symptoms? So that first child should be less effected and later ones more so.
not rated yet Apr 18, 2009
Interesting, PPihkala my first thought was exactly what you wonder about birth order. I have only met two autistic children and I just had to check then with my wife to make sure that the first one, who we used to know more than a decade ago was not the first born child in that family. She assures me he was the second child. The other autistic boy we know is also the second child. In both these cases the first born is a girl; though I have never read of suggested correlation with having an older sister.

Equally interesting is the idea that autistic children have a significantly increased probability of having a parent, uncle or brother who is an engineer. I don't know how rigorous the support for that idea is. The last time I tried looking it up I think the going opinion was that it is more than a statistical artefact.

If this business with the antibodies is statistically significant, and the business with the engineering association, I think the linking concept is cell adhesion molecules. These are molecular keys or tags that developing neurons project out through the cell membrane to discriminately gain traction as they move their cell body to the correct location after which they attach to other cells to stay in position. Perhaps there is a class of such molecules which can provoke the mother's immune response. This might cause damage to a first child but maybe has greater chance of leaving sleeper cells to more forcefully attack a second or third fetus. This would have parallels with the rhesus factor problem.

I wonder if this kind of thing is not much more common than we realise, after all spontaneous abortions/miscarriages occur to as many as a third of all conceptions - at least that is what I have heard.
not rated yet Apr 18, 2009

One thing to consider is our increasingly sterile world, immune system has been tuned by evolution to the constant onslaught of pathogens yet modern living conditions and increasing higiene (which in some cases reaches absurd levels for example adding antibiotics everywhere is not only unnecessary it has many negative consequences from pathogen immunity to environment damage) have eliminated vast majority of targets, it is quite possible that this results in immune system picking harmless proteins as targets this would explain the constant rise in occurrence of autoimmune diseases such as asthma and now according to this article autism.

Also if antibodies are responsible for effects like autism, then there should be correlation between birth order and the severity of symptoms? So that first child should be less effected and later ones more so.

On another note maybe such maternal antibodies also explain why the first child has statistically the highest IQ.
not rated yet Apr 24, 2009
I have an autistic son, and know several others. Out of the five I know best, three are first borns (including mine), and the other 2 are a 3rd and 5th born in the same family.

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