Infections during pregnancy may help autism develop—and scientists are finally figuring out why

The immune system is a complex beast. It often does a fantastic job of fighting dangerous pathogens, preventing microbes from infecting and harming you. But it’s not infallible. Cancer cells can squeeze past undetected, for example. And sometimes the immune system can go into overdrive: In an attempt to fight whatever infection you have, it over produces certain proteins and chemicals that can harm healthy cells.

During pregnancy, there’s even more at stake. This overwhelming response can affect a developing fetus, and some research suggests that a particularly intense immune reaction during gestation—what’s called maternal immune activation (MIA)—might increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders like autism.

But for a long time, scientists couldn’t figure out a mechanism. What was happening on a cellular level that would allow immune cells to increase the risk of these conditions? In a set of two mice studies published this week in the journal Nature, a team of scientists have laid out one potential process: A specific kind of bacteria in the mouse gut helps trigger the immune system to produce certain inflammatory cells, which cause an area of the somatosensory cortex in the mother’s offspring to exhibit signs meant to mimic autism and similar disorders in humans.

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13th September 2017
Popular Science