Influence of maternal cytokines on activation of the innate immune system as a factor in the development of autism
University of Medicine and Dentistry
Clinical and basic studies indicate a role for the immune system in autism. One idea is that a maternal immune response during pregnancy can influence embryonic development in such a way as to increase autism risk. Dr. Ponzio's research team has studied this possibility in mice, with a focus on the effect of cytokines on prenatal development. Cytokines are immune system compounds that signal other immune cells to the site of infection. Dr. Ponzio's research found that when one type of cytokine called interleukin-2 (IL-2) was injected into pregnant mice, their offspring had altered immune profiles and behavioral abnormalities that might be related to autism. Dr. Ponzio's pre-doctoral fellow will further explore the link between this experimental paradigm and autism. Specifically, the study will test whether IL-2 injections in pregnant mice results in offspring with nervous system inflammation, similar to that sometimes found in autism. Brains of the offspring of IL-2-injected pregnant mice will be inspected for microglia, which produce neural inflammatory responses and thus can be used as markers for neuroinflammation. The fellow will further investigate lasting effects of these IL-2 injections on the innate immune systems of offspring by measuring the activated cells, such as natural killer cells and antigen presenting cells. These measures will be compared to offspring of saline-injected control mice. What this means for people with autism: This study may specify how the immune system has a role in autism, which will be invaluable for future treatment, and perhaps prevention, strategies.