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Brain Inflammation, Oxidative Damage & Autism

August 21, 2012

In new research, scientists associated low levels of an antioxidant with signs of inflammation and cell damage in brains affected by autism. The study appears online in the journal Translational Psychiatry. It used family-donated tissue from Autism Speaks Autism Tissue Program (ATP).

The researchers evaluated 15 autism brain samples and compared these to 15 age-matched samples from persons without autism. They looked at brain regions associated with attention, language and motor control. In the autism samples, they found decreased levels of the antioxidant glutathione. These lowered levels, in turn, correlated with signs of inflammation and cell damage. Glutathione plays important roles in brain development and the ongoing protection of brain cells.

“To us, these results suggest that a genetic predisposition to insufficient antioxidant protection in the brain may contribute to autism risk,” says senior study author Jill James, Ph.D. Dr. James directs the Autism Metabolic Genomics Laboratory of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute. In a previous study, Dr. James’s team found increased oxidative stress and damage in plasma and immune cells in children with autism.

For perspective, it’s important to note that oxidative stress and inflammation are common findings in chronic disorders of the central nervous system, comments Robert Ring, Ph.D., Autism Speaks vice president for translational research. “It may be that all disorders affecting the nervous system ultimately lead to such changes,” he says. More research is needed to explore the hypothesis that these changes might cause the disorders.

In their paper, Dr. James and her colleagues extend thanks to the families whose postmortem donations made their research possible.

Also see Dr. James’ personal message to the Autism Speaks community in today’s science blog.

Autism Speaks continues to fund a broad range of research into the role of inflammation and the immune system in autism. Explore these and other research projects using this website’s Grant Search. Follow the hyperlink to learn more about Autism Speaks Autism Tissue Program (ATP). Learn more about participating in a wide range of autism studies here.