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Pregnant mums could hold key to autism

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Autism has been linked to the immune system of pregnant women, according to a recent study.

University of California researchers have identified maternal antibodies that are programmed to attack the body’s own antigens in the foetus, where they interfere with brain development.

This results in maternal autoantibody-related (MAR) autism, which may account for as much as 23 per cent of all cases of the condition.

The study found that the autoantibody was present in only 1 per cent of mothers whose children did not have autism spectrum disorders.

The researchers believe they have found the targets of these maternal autoantibodies, which may lead to medical interventions that limit a developing baby’s exposure to damaging antibodies.

The researchers also found the autoantibodies could change the social behaviour and brain mass of a close primate cousin, the rhesus monkey, in ways that are parallel to autism’s symptoms in humans.

Lead researcher and immunologist from the University of California Judy Van de Water said identifying targets for the oddly-programmed proteins has taken years, and that she and her colleagues had struggled to tease out all the identities of the compounds from a range of suspect molecules identified through clinical imaging.

Through a complex series of lock-and-key experiments, the research team identified seven foetal antigens that were attacked by the maternal autoantibodies.

All but one has been linked with the creation and development of neurons, particularly in the hippocampus. This region of the brain, which is associated with memory and learning, has been tied to autism in many previous studies.

Essentially, lock and key experiments are when the correctly sized key (substrate) fits into the key hole (active site) of the lock (enzyme).

Around one in 100, or almost 230,000, Australians have autism spectrum disorder, which is characterised by problems with social and communication skills, restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours, and unusual ways of learning and paying attention.

The research was published in Translational Psychiatry.

Kirsty Waterford