Mother’s gut holds answer to autism

Washington DC, [USA] July 20 : A mother’s gut holds the secret to autism-related disorders.
In a recent study, it was found that the risk of developing autism-spectrum disorders is determined by the mother’s microbiome – the collection of microorganisms that naturally live inside women during pregnancy.
The work raises the possibility that preventing forms of autism could be as simple as an expectant mom modifying her diet or taking custom probiotics.
Further, researchers were able to use their discovery to prevent the development of autism-like neuro-developmental disorders in lab mice.
They found that it halt the development of such disorders by blocking a particular inflammatory molecule produced by the immune system.
According to the researches, targeting this molecule, interleukin-17a, offered another potential avenue for preventing autism in people.
They cautioned that this approach would be much more complex because of the risk of side effects.
“We determined that the microbiome is a key contributor in determining susceptibility [to autism-like disorders], so it suggests that you could target either the maternal microbiome or this inflammatory molecule, IL-17a,” said lead researcher John Lukens.
“You could also use this [IL-17a] as a biomarker for early diagnosis,” he added.
Lukens further said that “the microbiome can shape the developing brain in multiple ways.”
“The microbiome is really important to the calibration of how the offspring’s immune system is going to respond to an infection or injury or stress.”
But an unhealthy microbiome in the mother can create problems according to Lukens. He said that it can make her unborn baby vulnerable to neuro-developmental disorders.
But the good thing is that the microbiome can be modified easily, either through diet, probiotic supplements or fecal transplant. All of these approaches seek to restore a healthy equilibrium among the different microorganisms that live in the gut.
“In terms of translating our work to humans, I think the next big step would be to identify features of the microbiome in pregnant mothers that correlate with autism risk,” Lukens said.
“I think the really important thing is to figure out what kind of things can be used to modulate the microbiome in the mother as effectively and safely as we can,” he further added.
Blocking IL-17a also might offer a way to prevent autism, but Lukens said that path carries much more risk. “If you think about pregnancy, the body is basically accepting foreign tissue, which is a baby,” he said.
“As a result, maintenance of embryonic health demands a complex balance of immune regulation, so people tend to shy away from manipulating the immune system during pregnancy.”
Previously, IL-17a had been implicated in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis, and there are already drugs available that target it.
But Lukens noted that the molecule has an important purpose in stopping infections, especially fungal infections. Blocking it, he said, “could make you susceptible to all kinds of infections.” And doing so during pregnancy could have complex ripple effects on a child’s development that scientists would need to sort out.
While Lukens’ work links the immune system with neurodevelopmental disorders, he emphasized that this in no way suggests that vaccines are contributing to the development of autism.
The study appeared in the Journal of Immunology.