The Role of Inflammation in Autism

Summary:

It is a proven fact already that inflammation is one of the characteristics of autism. However, it is not just a comorbid condition, but rather the factor that causes genetic and brain alterations in children. First inflammation can alter the expression of some genes responsible for brain development and functions, and second, the inflammation causes direct damage to the central nervous system causing proliferation of brain cells.

Evidence of Inflammation in Children with Autism

The publications on the etiology of autism with an assessment of the reliability of the data were analyzed in a big meta-analysis article. The largest number of publications showed an association between ASD and the inflammatory/aberrant immune system, out of them, 95% of studies showed a positive relationship). Moreover, according to the authors, the strength of evidence was the highest in these articles. 

 

A 2016 study fully confirms the role of inflammation in ASD, showing that at least 69% of children with ASD had neuroinflammation and microglial activation.

Another study showed that fetal inflammation due to viral or bacterial infections in some cases can lead to damage to the CNS, which can lead to various neurological disorders such as schizophrenia, cerebral palsy and ASD.

 
As well, it was discussed that perinatal neuroinflammation can lead to further autistic symptoms in a child
 
Analysis of samples of cerebrospinal fluid and serum in children with autism and in healthy children led to the conclusion that children with autism had abnormal levels of neopterin, biopterin, cytokine, and cytokine receptors; once again pointing to the role of neuroinflammation in the development of ASD

Effect of Inflammation on Brain Alterations

It is known that children with autism may have brain volume 30% larger than neurotypical children

Such an increase in the brain is called proliferation or hyperplasia. A study of the brain tissue of a child with autism and its comparison with the control showed that a child with autism has a significantly higher cell proliferation in the brain than the control.

 

In one of the review articles, where various molecular mechanisms of such proliferation in autism are considered, it is mentioned that children with autism have been found to have impaired genetic expression, leading to proliferation, which causes an increase in brain size. That is, the increase in many areas of the brain, characteristic of children with autism, is not overgrowth, but rather the swelling of the brain (encephalitis) as a result of constant neuroinflammation.

 

This increase in the early period of development is explained by proliferative and hypertrophic astrocytes, while a decrease in brain volume by the time the first autistic symptoms appear can be explained by the death of neurons as a result of prolonged proliferative inflammation. 

In addition, many indicators of the brain confirm the role of inflammation.
 

In a study, a review of publications indicating signs of inflammation in the brain of children with ASD was done.
 

These studies have shown that children with ASD have:

  • activation of microglia and astroglia in the middle frontal gyrus, anterior cingulate gyrus, and cerebellum;

  • elevated levels of tumor growth factor antiinflammatory cytokines-1 and protein-1 chemoattractant proinflammatory macrophages;

  • increased levels of IFN-gamma, MCP-1, TGF-beta2 and IL-8 in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF),

  • a reduction in quinolinic acid and neopterin and an increase in biopterin level in CSF;

  • increased levels of TNF-alpha in CSF,

  • elevated levels of expression of some immunogenic genes in the superior temporal gyrus,

  • reactive gliosis in BA22, BA44 and BA39,

  • elevated pro-inflammatory cytokines in the frontal cortex,

  • increased expression of NF-KappaB in the orbitofrontal cortex

  • increase in the concentration of 3-chlorothyrosine in the cerebellum and temporal cortex

  • elevated levels of cytokines IL-1b, IL-6, and IL-17

All of these findings directly indicate the state of neuroinflammation in children with autism.

Effect of Inflammation of the Genetic Changes

In many cases, it has been shown that oxidative stress, which causes DNA damage, is a consequence of inflammation. In vitro, inflammatory cytokines have been found to induce the production of nitric oxide and nitric oxide synthase, which inhibits DNA repair.

 

Moreover, in another study, it was shown that at sites of inflammation, macrophages, and neutrophils that are the molecules of inflammation, produce active forms of oxygen and nitrogen, which leads to oxidative stress.

 

It is well-known that in other diseases such as cancer, inflammation leads to certain types of genetic changes. 

But what causes inflammation?

Inflammation is a response of our immune system to any kind of danger from outside, but the most common danger that we face everyday are infections.

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