Guest post by Myka Estes, a 2012 Autism Speaks Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellow and a researcher at the University of California, Davis. Estes’ fellowship supports her study of immune system abnormalities that may affect early brain development in children with autism.
My path to autism research was not a direct one. But my interest was piqued early. My mother, a social worker, worked with adults with disabilities. She coordinated their support services and helped oversee their home and work lives. This demanding job seeped into my mother’s personal life. Often, her clients and their families became our family friends. Each night at the dinner table, we discussed their successes and challenges.
Several of the families we came to know had several children affected by autism. Yet their symptoms varied widely. In addition to the core symptoms of social difficulties and repetitive behaviors, many of these patients had digestive and immune abnormalities. I filed these observations away as an unresolved mystery. I headed off to college intending to become a lawyer. How unimaginable that is to me today!
Fate intervened at the end of my freshman year. My studies were derailed by a debilitating illness, eventually diagnosed as systemic lupus. My ensuing battle to function in even the most basic ways forced me to withdraw from college. I spent a year waiting for reprieve. Then I realized I might be waiting in vain. So against the advice of family and physicians, I returned to college. This time I focused on immunology as a means of better understanding my own autoimmune disease.
Like autism, lupus is a complex disorder with no known cause or cure. Additionally, 90 percent of lupus patients experience cognitive impairments. I was no exception. Learning had once come easily to me. Now I floundered academically, unprepared to cope with memory loss and bouts of “brain fog.”
Luckily, this episode in my life coincided with a critical discovery in neuroscience: that the adult brain is far more plastic than previously believed. Based on my readings, I learned that arduous repetition and multimodal learning could help me navigate my cognitive deficits. I rigorously incorporated these skills in my daily life, and my studies progressed.
After graduation, I continued my immunology training. I worked in labs that explored the immune system’s role in seemingly unconnected diseases such as cancer, diabetes and vascular disease. During this time, I kept hearing reports of an explosion in the number of patients being diagnosed with immune disorders – and at increasingly younger ages.
These reports coincided with epidemiological studies showing an increased incidence of autism, even after controlling for higher rates of diagnosis due to awareness. I thought back to my mother’s patients with autism – with their family histories of digestive issues, increased allergies and immune abnormalities. I wondered if the rising rate of diagnosis somehow related to environment factors. My curiosity got the better of me. I switched fields and began studying neuroimmune interactions in the development of autism.
Thanks to an Autism Speaks Weatherstone fellowship, I am now studying how environmental risk factors may influence predisposition to autism during the prenatal period. I am doing so as a graduate student in the lab of Kimberley McAllister, PhD, at the University of California, Davis. UC Davis’s MIND Institute, a facility dedicated to neurodevelopmental disorders, exemplifies the interdisciplinary approach needed to tackle complex disorders like autism. Here, patients and families share dialogue with scientists and clinicians. It is at this rich intersection that insights are bound to be found.
I want to thank the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Autism Speaks and its community of supporters for making this research possible.
Editor’s note: You can learn more about Autism Speaks Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship (including how to apply) here.
To read more about Autism Speaks Weatherstone fellows, please see these feature profiles, videos and blogs: