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Infection-Autism Link Explained?

A mouse study suggests a mechanism by which severe infections during pregnancy increase autism risk. 

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

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FLICKR, ANGELADELLATORREAn immune effector molecule called interleukin 17 (IL-17), produced as part of a mother’s inflammatory reaction to a pathogen, can interfere with her baby’s brain development, according to a mouse study published this week (January 28) in Science. Blocking IL-17 production in pregnant mice prevented the development of autism-like behaviors in their offspring. The results suggest a possible explanation for the fact that women in Denmark who were hospitalized due to an infection during their pregnancy were more likely to have a child with autism.

“In the mice, we could treat the mother with antibodies that block IL-17 after inflammation had set in, and that could ameliorate some of the behavioral symptoms that were observed in the offspring,” coauthor Gloria Choi, an assistant professor at MIT, said in a press release.

Choi’s former Caltech advisor, Paul Patterson, had previously discovered a link between the immune signaling...

“Our data suggest that therapeutic targeting of TH17 cells in susceptible pregnant mothers may reduce the likelihood of bearing children with inflammation-induced ASD [autism spectrum disorder]-like phenotypes,” the authors wrote in their paper.

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