In 2010, a large study in Denmark found that women who suffered an infection severe enough to require hospitalization while pregnant were much more likely to have a child with autism (even though the overall risk of delivering a child with autism remained low). Now research from MIT, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the University of Colorado, and New York University Langone Medical Center reveals a possible mechanism for how this occurs. In a study of mice, the researchers found that immune cells activated in the mother during severe inflammation produce an immune effector molecule called IL-17 that appears to interfere with brain development. The researchers also found that blocking this signal could restore normal behavior and brain structure.
The researchers hope their work may lead to a way to reduce the chances of autism developing in the children of women who experience severe infections during pregnancy. They also plan to investigate whether genetic makeup influences mice’s susceptibility to maternal inflammation, because autism is known to have a very strong genetic component.