Neuroscience Helps Explain Severe Infection In Pregnancy Link To Autism

It is known that mothers who come down with severe infections that require hospitalization during pregnancy are at an elevated risk of having a child with autism. Two new studies from MIT and the University of Massachusetts Medical School investigate the phenomenon and pinpoint potential prevention pathways.

In research on mice, the researchers discovered that the composition of bacterial populations in the mother’s digestive tract can influence whether maternal infection leads to autistic-like behaviors in offspring. They also discovered the specific brain changes that produce these behaviors.

If further replicated in human studies, the findings could offer a possible way to reduce the risk of autism, which would involve blocking the function of certain strains of bacteria found in the maternal gut, the researchers say.

Discrete Brain Region Identified

Gloria Choi, the Samuel A. Goldblith Career Development Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, said:

“We identified a very discrete brain region that seems to be modulating all the behaviors associated with this particular model of neurodevelopmental disorder.”

Choi and Jun Huh, formerly an assistant professor at UMass Medical School who is now a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, are the senior authors of both papers.

A 2010 study that included all children born in Denmark between 1980 and 2005 found that severe viral infections during the first trimester of pregnancy translated to a threefold risk for autism, and serious bacterial infections during the second trimester were linked with a 1.42-fold increase in risk. These infections included influenza, viral gastroenteritis, and severe urinary tract infections.

Similar effects have been described in mouse models of maternal inflammation, and in a 2016 paper, Choi and Huh found that a type of immune cells known as Th17 cells, and their effector molecule, called IL-17, are responsible…

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