Maternal immune systems, autism and the value of prediction

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

Following on these two papers (1, 2) published in Translational Psychiatry.

When I wrote about Gene by Environment (GxE) interactions and the possible health of children, I was describing how changes in maternal health might have an effect on child health at the level of what genes are turned on and off.  In that situation, there may be the possibility that actions by potential mothers before conceiving could positively impact child health.  In many other cases, though, the actions for predicted problems can only take place after birth.  Key point: in many cases these interventions are best done early, which is why states have newborn screening programs (although surprisingly the number of tested conditions varies from state to state).  In the context it’s interesting that a couple of recent papers have identified what may be a way to predict the development of autism in children.

The papers describe findings that may, if corroborated, have a large impact on autism prediction and, eventually, possible treatment and prevention for a subset of patients.  First, the team demonstrated through study of non-human primates that these human autoantibodies, when given to pregnant rhesus monkeys, led to significant changes in both maternal and infant monkey behavior.  Mothers in the experimental group showed more protective behavior toward their infants, and those offspring more frequently approached known and unknown monkeys despite not receiving commensurate social responses.  Male offspring also showed measurable increases in brain volume.  Second, the research team discovered that autoantibodies  to combinations of fetal brain proteins are found in a significant fraction of mothers who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) children, while mothers from the control group rarely have such autoantibodies to so many of these proteins. Continue reading