New theories on autism look at inflammation in the womb


Today, we acknowledge a new day of autism awareness, although, as the father of an autistic child, I have to say that I think that every day should be autism awareness day. But, more than any previous year, I am optimistic about coming closer to finding ways to prevent or even to slow down the pace of autism.

Research is beginning to shed light onto the possible mechanisms of autism. One theory in particular that I’m paying close attention to is inflammation of the fetal brain in utero. There are currently some studies that are looking at the effects of inflammatory mediators. In other words, scientists are observing inflamed reactions in a pregnant woman that they believe may alter the proper pathways of fetal brain cells, and predispose the newborn child to having cognitive challenges.

A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed the brain tissue of children with autism. Scientists from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington looked at 25 genes in the brain tissue of deceased children with and without autism, including genes that have been linked to autism, as well as several control genes.

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Researchers found that the brains of autistic children were missing key genetic markers across multiple layers of brain cells. This was the first study to actually look at the brains of children because until it was done, scientists had only ever studied the brain tissue of adults with autism and sought to figure out what may have occurred developmentally when the patient was diagnosed as a child.

Another study published last year followed 1.2 million pregnant women in Finland and measured the expectant mothers’ levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), an indicator of inflammation. Researchers found a 43 percent increased risk in children of mothers with the highest levels of CRP.

Studies have also shown that women with autoimmune diseases are more likely to produce a kind of antibody that attacks the brain of the developing fetus.

If we look at the rates of autism over the last decade, we can clearly see that more and more children are developing the disorder. Now, if you look at the rates of autoimmune diseases in general, especially in women, it seems that we also have alarming rates of things like arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, often times in combination with higher rates of obesity, hormonal imbalances and Type 2 diabetes.

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The challenge we face as an industrialized nation is a lack of transparency when it comes to the unchecked and sometimes unregulated chemicals we’re exposed to from open-market globalization. Trying to bring products to our homes in a more economical fashion might be predisposing us to being constantly surrounded by risk factors for different illnesses.

Now, as I said before, these are theories at this point. But certainly, for me as a scientist, they do tend to make some sense. And this research, as it gets analyzed could help us develop protocols to test inflammatory markers in mothers and in newborns that could lead inflammation in the brain and other parts of the body.

No matter what the future holds for treating the disorder, the one in 68 children born with autism today are here to stay, so they deserve every opportunity to be active and productive members of society. This is an area where we need to pay more attention and take more action.

I have worked tirelessly to bring attention to the need for autism research and resources, but on a personal note, as my own son, Ryan, is now turning 18, the choices he has available to him for his life’s path are still quite limited. He wants to continue his post high school education, yet many colleges are still ill-prepared to handle amended curriculum of undergraduate education needed to facilitate a path for these young men and women to pursue their college careers.

There are, however, some bright spots in our country in the form of community colleges, which have looked at this problem and are actively working to create the kind of curriculum that will afford young men and women on the autism spectrum the opportunity to continue their educations. It’s hard work, I know, but it’s also great work.

I applaud community colleges, like Bergen County Community College, where I live in New Jersey, which for several years now, has rallied behind this effort. And I encourage parents to be proactive; as your child approaches graduation, begin to look at these programs and get involved in helping educators formulate curriculum and projects that all young men and women on the spectrum can benefit from.

With today also being Holy Thursday, we are reminded of how Jesus humbled himself and washed the feet of his apostles. I think His message applies in a special way today, reminding us that we children of God are all equal in the eyes of the Lord. So today, I honor my Ryan, children around the world.

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