Neuroscientists Make ‘Unexpected’ Discovery Over Cause of Childhood Autism

Neuroscientists from the University of Maryland have come a step closer to understanding how disorders such as autism and schizophrenia develop in children, opening the door for potential new treatments.

Inflammation in the brain during early childhood has been previously linked to autism and schizophrenia. But the mechanisms behind this link have been unclear.

Now Maryland researchers have identified how this inflammation can affect human brain cells and their development, offering a potential mechanism for this association. Their results were published on October 12 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

In their research, the team conducted a post-mortem analysis of the brain tissues from 17 children—eight who had died from conditions related to inflammation and nine who had been in accidents.

“Inflammation can be induced by many factors,” Seth Ament, an associate professor in psychiatry at Maryland’s Medicine Institute of Neuroscience Discovery, told Newsweek. Ament and Margaret McCarthy are co-lead authors of the study.

“The donors in our sample experienced acute inflammation from causes such as encephalitis and severe asthma attacks. In addition, some donors were identified as having experienced inflammation because their medical records indicated the use of anti-inflammatory drugs,” he said.

Brain inflammation and childhood autism

Previous studies have shown that babies born with abnormalities in the cerebellum—the part of the brain involved in movement, balance, motor learning and speech—are more likely to develop neurodevelopmental disorders. So, the team decided to focus their research on this area.

“We looked at the cerebellum because it is one of the first brain regions to begin developing and one of the last to reach its maturity, but it remains understudied,” Ament said.

After examining the cells of the cerebellum, the team discovered that two specific types of brain cell found in this area were particularly vulnerable to brain inflammation—the Golgi neurons and the Purkinje neurons.

“Purkinje and Golgi neurons have critical functions,” Ament said. “During development, Purkinje neurons form synapses connecting the cerebellum to other brain regions involved in cognition or emotional control, while Golgi neurons coordinate communication between cells within the cerebellum.

“Disruption of either of these developmental processes could explain how inflammation contributes to conditions like autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.”

Their study was the first to show these results in humans, validating previous animal-based studies and yielding some surprising outcomes.

“Dr. McCarthy previously found a postnatal critical period in rats during which inflammation blunts the development of Purkinje neurons, so it was very encouraging for us to see similar effects in humans,” Ament said.

“By contrast, our findings for Golgi neurons were more unexpected and open up a new line of investigation.”

This study opens up exciting avenues for potential treatments for these childhood-onset conditions, and there are a variety of ways to treat inflammation. However, it is not clear whether targeting inflammation would block its effects on brain development and more work needs to be done to confirm these associations.

Uncommon Knowledge

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Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

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