Immunity and Autism

In May 2005 researchers at the Mind Institute at the University of California, Davis demonstrated that children with autism have different immune system responses from children who do not have the disorder. This is important evidence that autism, currently defined primarily by distinct behaviours, may potentially be defined by distinct biological changes as well.

‘Understanding the biology of autism is crucial to developing strategies to diagnose and treat it’, said Judy Van de Water, a professor at the institute. ‘While impaired communication and social skills are the hallmarks of the disorder, there has not yet been strong scientific evidence that the immune system is implicated as well. We now need to design carefully controlled studies that tell us even more about the way in which a dysfunctional immune system may play a role in the disorder.’

These studies illustrate that, under similar circumstances, cytokine responses elicited by immune cells, following their activation by bacteria or viruses, differ markedly in children with autism compared to age related matched children in the general population. Cytokines, which function as mediators of the immune response, carrying messages between other immune cells, are known to affect mood and behaviour.

‘This study is part of a large effort to learn how changes in the immune system response may make some children more susceptible to the harmful effects of environmental agents’, said Kenneth Olden, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the agency that provided funding for the study. ‘A better understanding of the connection between altered immune response and autism may lead to the early detection,prevention and treatment of this complex neurological disorder.’

Scientists from the Institute feel that their discoveries may offer a new and exciting direction in the effort to develop a diagnostic test for autism in infancy.

First published July 2006

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