New research from the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute and Center for Children's Environmental Health has found that antibodies in the blood of mothers of children with autism bind to fetal brain cells, potentially interrupting healthy brain development. The study authors also found that the reaction was most common in mothers of children with the regressive form of autism, which occurs when a period of typical development is followed by loss of social and/or language skills. The findings raise the possibility that the transfer of maternal antibodies during pregnancy is a risk factor for autism and, at some point, that a prenatal test and treatment could prevent the disorder for some children.
"While a growing body of research is dedicated to finding distinctions in the immune systems of children with autism, this is one of the first studies to identify immunological factors in mothers that could be linked to autism in the very earliest stages of life," said Judy Van de Water, senior author of the study and professor of rheumatology, allergy and clinical immunology. "Our results should lead to more research on the prenatal environment and the onset of autism. We are also optimistic that in the future a prenatal test and therapeutic intervention preventing IgG exposure during pregnancy could protect some children from ever getting autism."
Van de Water and her team began their research with blood samples from 123 mothers -- 61 whose children have autism and 62 whose children are typically developing. They isolated IgG antibodies from the samples then exposed the antibody to fetal brain tissue by western blot analysis, which detects antibody reactivity to proteins. The outcome revealed a highly specific reactivity pattern to two fetal brain proteins in seven of the 61 samples from the autism group, six of which were from mothers of children who had regressive autism. None of the IgG samples from mothers in the control group produced this same result.
"We're not entirely sure why the IgG response against fetal brain proteins was so specific for later onset autism," said Van de Water. "It's possible that early exposure to maternal antibodies sets in motion a biological path to autism with the behavioral outcomes not apparent until much later. It's also possible that an environmental exposure sometime after birth could be required to set this process in motion. We are hopeful that this study will help build our understanding of the foundations of the regressive form of the disorder."
Characteristic features of autism -- social deficits, language impairments and limited, repetitive behaviors -- are often clear early in an affected child's life. Other children seem to progress normally until 12-to-24 months of age, when developmental milestones disappear. These distinct pathways have led clinicians to identify autism as one of two types -- early onset or regressive -- potentially with distinct causes and disease processes.
IgG antibodies are responsible for long-term immune system responses to infection, but they can also contribute to autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis and lupus. IgG also crosses the placenta in order to provide key immune system protectants to a growing fetus and newborn child, which is a key reason why Van de Water decided to investigate the role of IgG as a potential factor in autism.
Van de Water next wants to know if IgG in women during the time of their pregnancies produces the same response to fetal brain proteins. Women in the current study were two-to-five years beyond childbirth. She will now conduct the same study with women who are pregnant and already have a child with autism, because such women are much more likely to have another child with the disorder.
"If women in this next phase of the study give birth to a child eventually diagnosed with autism, blood analyses from all stages of her pregnancy will give us a clear picture of the immune system factors that were in play during gestation and could have altered her child's neurodevelopment," Van de Water said.
Other key next steps are to identify the specific proteins targeted by autism-specific maternal antibodies and their role in neurodevelopment and to determine whether or not exposure to maternal IgG during pregnancy leads to behavioral or social distinctions in offspring. Animal model studies are now under way to help answer these questions.
"Our outcome leads autism science in many new and exciting directions," said Daniel Braunschweig, pre-doctoral fellow of immunology in the Van de Water lab, lead author of the current study and recent recipient of an Autism Speaks mentor fellowship to further pursue this research. "We now know we should be looking for the clues to the onset and pathology of autism much earlier than was initially assumed. Future studies should consider the immune system interactions between mother and child as a focal point in creating greater understanding of, and eventually finding effective preventions for, this complex neurodevelopmental disorder."
"This finding is important because it provides important clues about the potential maternal contributions to autism risk in a subset of children who may develop autism," said Isaac Pessah, director of the UC Davis Center for Children's Environmental Health and professor of molecular biosciences. "We're determined to find out what causes autism. Studies conducted in the Van de Water lab are giving us valuable insights as to when and where in the developmental process we should be looking for those causes."
"We're very interested in understanding the underlying causes of autism," said Cindy Lawler, scientific program director at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "This finding, in combination with other new research findings coming from NIH-funded studies, demonstrates the complexity of this disorder and underscores the importance of understanding how the mother's immune system can influence early brain development."
The study, "Maternally Derived Antibodies Specific for Fetal Brain Proteins," is to be published in the March 2008 issue of Neurotoxicology. It was funded by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the M.I.N.D. Institute.
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