Lecture – Translational Studies of Inflammatory Factors in Autism

Available with English captions.

Presented by Bill Carlezon, PhD, McLean Hospital, and Christopher J. McDougle, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital – Crossroads in Psychiatry lecture

In this talk, McDougle and Carlezon discuss past and present investigations into the causes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They present information about the clinical phenotype results from translational and clinical research. They also offer ideas for the next steps in defining an immune-mediated subtype of ASD.

The researchers state that clinicians and researchers do not know what causes ASD. The condition is difficult to understand. Unlike people with depression or schizophrenia, individuals with ASD do not get better through treatment.

A key to understanding ASD could be an examination of the many co-occurring medical conditions associated with the immune-mediated subtype of the condition.

Lecture highlights include:

  • A review of research into the symptoms and causes of ASD
  • An examination of coexisting conditions associated with the immune-mediated subtype of ASD
  • A look at recent results from neuroimaging studies related to immune dysfunction in ASD
  • A discussion of possible treatment ideas for immune-moderated ASD

Findings from studies conducted in the 1940s by the child psychiatrist Leo Kanner suggest a link between ASD and autoimmune disorders. Through clinical observations, Kanner found that many children with autism had gastrointestinal conditions, allergies, and ear infections.

The first paper to show a connection between autism and a possible autoimmune phenomenon was published in 1971. Since then, many studies have been conducted into this relationship. However, this work has not established a clear link because of poor study design.

McDougle and Carlezon report that they and others are taking new approaches to investigating immune-mediated subtypes of ASD. Recent work has looked at postmortem brain tissue of people with ASD. Another compared blood plasma from mothers who have children with ASD with women of childbearing potential who do not have children with autism.

At Mass General Hospital, McDougle and his colleagues used sophisticated imaging technology to investigate inflammation in the brains of people with autism.

Carlezon and his team at McLean looked at mice with autism, studying symptoms such as sleep, anxiety, depression-like behavior, and seizures. They focused on brain receptors involved in regulating immune responses.

Carlezon’s lab revealed differences in anti-inflammatory markers in the subjects, including differences between males and females.

Continued study into the underlying causes of ASD, particularly around immune-mediated ASD, could lead to improved diagnoses and treatment.