passionless Droning about autism

Archive for May 2010

Hello friends –

The abstract for Association of hospitalization for infection in childhood with diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders: a Danish cohort study hit my inbox the other morning.  Here is the abstract

OBJECTIVE: To investigate the association between hospitalization for infection in the perinatal/neonatal period or childhood and the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). DESIGN: A population-based cohort study. SETTING: Denmark. PARTICIPANTS: All children born in Denmark from January 1, 1980, through December 31, 2002, comprising a total of 1 418 152 children. EXPOSURE: Infection requiring hospitalization. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE: The adjusted hazard ratio (HR) for ASDs among children hospitalized for infection compared with other children. RESULTS: A total of 7379 children were diagnosed as having ASDs. Children admitted to the hospital for any infectious disease displayed an increased rate of ASD diagnoses (HR, 1.38 [95% confidence interval, 1.31-1.45]). This association was found to be similar for infectious diseases of bacterial and viral origin. Furthermore, children admitted to the hospital for noninfectious disease also displayed an increased rate of ASD diagnoses (HR, 1.76 [95% confidence interval, 1.68-1.86]), and admissions for infection increased the rate of mental retardation (2.18 [2.06-2.31]). CONCLUSIONS: The association between hospitalization for infection and ASDs observed in this study does not suggest causality because a general association is observed across different infection groups. Also, the association is not specific for infection or for ASDs. We discuss a number of noncausal explanatory models

[Emphasis is mine.]

Considering my interest in early life immune activation, and the often difficult to predict, persistent outcomes from a variety of animal models, this study immediately struck me as an interesting one. The authors graciously sent my real world inbox a copy of this paper, as well as a similar one involving maternal infection during pregnancy, which I have yet to read.

Anyways, what strikes me very clearly here is that the authors and I have reached exactly the opposite conclusions towards the potential of a casual link between autism and hospitalization for infection in the perinatal / infancy periods.  They apparently feel that the fact that an association is observed across different infectious agents (i.e., bacterial or viral), that this argues against a causal mechanism.  But, as I have detailed in A Brief History of Early Life Immune Challenges and Why They (Might) Matter, we have an increasing number of animal studies that indicate that spikes in innate immune system cytokines during critical developmental timeframes can have, perverse and often baffling effects that we are only beginning to understand.  Most of this research is brand new, within the past three years, and solely in the realm of animal models.  However, the critical component of these studies that the Denmark study fails to take into consideration is that the innate immune response will be initiated regardless if the stimulant is viral or bacterial in nature. That is to say, the evidence from these studies tells us that the fact that we are observing differences across bacterial or viral pathogens is not necessarily an indication of lack of effect, but rather, could instead point towards a global effect, one that happens in both instances; surges in pro-inflammatory cytokines from the innate immune response.

For an example of some of these animal models, we could look to Postnatal Inflammation Increases Seizure Susceptibility in Adult Rats, which observed a tnf-alpha driven, time dependent mechanism that ‘increases seizure susceptibility in adult rats’.


There are critical postnatal periods during which even subtle interventions can have long-lasting effects on adult physiology. We asked whether an immune challenge during early postnatal development can alter neuronal excitability and seizure susceptibility in adults. Postnatal day 14 (P14) male Sprague Dawley rats were injected with the bacterial endotoxin lipopolysaccharide (LPS), and control animals received sterile saline. Three weeks later, extracellular recordings from hippocampal slices revealed enhanced field EPSP slopes after Schaffer collateral stimulation and increased epileptiform burst-firing activity in CA1 after 4-aminopyridine application. Six to 8 weeks after postnatal LPS injection, seizure susceptibility was assessed in response to lithium–pilocarpine, kainic acid, and pentylenetetrazol. Rats treated with LPS showed significantly greater adult seizure susceptibility to all convulsants, as well as increased cytokine release and enhanced neuronal degeneration within the hippocampus after limbic seizures. These persistent increases in seizure susceptibility occurred only when LPS was given during a critical postnatal period (P7 and P14) and not before (P1) or after (P20). This early effect of LPS on adult seizures was blocked by concurrent intracerebroventricular administration of a tumor necrosis factor (TNF) antibody and mimicked by intracerebroventricular injection of rat recombinant TNF. Postnatal LPS injection did not result in permanent changes in microglial (Iba1) activity or hippocampal cytokine [IL-1β (interleukin-1β) and TNF] levels, but caused a slight increase in astrocyte (GFAP) numbers. These novel results indicate that a single LPS injection during a critical postnatal period causes a long-lasting increase in seizure susceptibility that is strongly dependent on TNF.

Another, very similar study, Viral-like brain inflammation during development causes increased seizure susceptibility in adult reports:

Viral infections of the CNS and their accompanying inflammation can cause long-term neurological effects, including increased risk for seizures. To examine the effects of CNS inflammation, we infused polyinosinic:polycytidylic acid, intracerebroventricularly to mimic a viral CNS infection in 14 day-old rats. This caused fever and an increase in the pro-inflammatory cytokine, interleukin (IL)-1beta in the brain. As young adults, these animals were more susceptible to lithium-pilocarpine and pentylenetetrazol-induced seizures and showed memory deficits in fear conditioning. Whereas there was no alteration in adult hippocampal cytokine levels, we found a marked increase in NMDA (NR2A and C) and AMPA (GluR1) glutamate receptor subunit mRNA expression. The increase in seizure susceptibility, glutamate receptor subunits, and hippocampal IL-1beta levels were suppressed by neonatal systemic minocycline. Thus, a novel model of viral CNS inflammation reveals pathophysiological relationships between brain cytokines, glutamate receptors, behaviour and seizures, which can be attenuated by anti-inflammatory agents like minocycline.

If we look closely here, we can see that either viral or bacterial mimics were able to generate similar physiological outcomes, outcomes that have strong correlations to the autism realm, namely increased rates of epilepsy, associations with seizures during infancy, and abnormal EEGs.  But importantly for the decision tree in the case of childhood infections in the studies above, taken together, we can see that it didn’t matter if the trigger was bacterial or viral, just that there was an innate immune response at all. This is further evidenced by the fact that in both instances, different anti-inflammatory agents were capable of attenuating the changes.  Our mechanism of action does not mandate pathogen specific interactions, in many cases, the cut off is whether or not you generate an innate immune response or not, regardless of the specific trigger. Another way of putting this would be, if an immune response for any pathogen were capable of initiating an cascade responsible for development of autistic behaviors, what would a pattern of hospitalization look like?  [Children admitted to the hospital for any infectious disease displayed an increased rate of ASD diagnoses (HR, 1.38 [95% confidence interval, 1.31-1.45]).  This association was found to be similar for infectious diseases of bacterial and viral origin.]

If you ask the wrong question even the right answer might not be useful in understanding a mystery.

All that being said, I have begun to see why Denmark makes such an attractive location for this kind of study.  They have amassed an impressive set of data that could  yield important clues if we can use it wisely.

I also noted that there is a P. Thorsen listed.  I, for one, could care less.

– pD

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