passionless Droning about autism

Archive for the ‘Synapse’ Category

Hello Friends – There are (at least) two big
classifications of microglia findings in autism, an altered
morphology (i.e., shape and function, or ‘activated’ versus
‘quiescent’), and an increased number (i.e., more), with both
parameters varying with each other and spatially.  In other
words, disparate parts of the brain have different numbers of
microglia in them, and the functional profile of those microglia
also varies from one area to another. 
[Note: There is ongoing
regarding the appropriate definition of
‘activation’ of microglia, with evidence of (at least) four states
of microglial morphology.] Recently I saw a discussion on the SFARI
site about the fancy in
vivo study of microglia numbers in high functioning males with
.  (I believe I am growing
increasingly jaded, as it occurs to me that radio tracing against
[11C](R)-PK11195) to
show microglial activation is a fancy trick, but one leaving us
open to detecting other stuff too.)  In any case, the findings
are not especially unexpected by now, well not to me anyways, but a
comment at the SFARI site really got me thinking about the chain of
events that could lead to different spatial and
morphological characteristics of microglia.  Perhaps we could
gain insight into the question of what the microglia are doing by
trying to understanding how they got there. Do we have any
biologically plausible models that might educate us on how a
different morphology and distribution of microglia could be
A while ago I got a copy of a few
articles that don’t have autism in them per se, but they kept
coming to the forefront of my mind when I thought about that
question.  The first is Distribution
of microglia in the postnatal murine nigrostriatal
which had a disease focus on
Parkinson’s, but what really grabbed my attention is what they
learned about the developmental pathway microglia took to populate,
and then depopulate the substantia nigra (SN), a little wedge of
brain involved with motor skills, reward seeking, and addiction.

Interestingly, the SN
has been shown to contain more microglia than
structures. We have analysed
changes in microglia numbers and in microglial morphology in the
postnatal murine nigrostriatal system at various stages ranging
from postnatal day 0 (P0) up to 24 months of age. We
clearly show that the microglia numbers in the SN and in the
striatum dramatically increase from P0 to P15
significantly decrease in both areas in 18-month-old and
24-month-old animals.

[Note: There seems to be
some variance in the appropriate ‘rat-to-human-age’ approximations;
especially when trying to do something as
expeditionary as comparing brain development.  We should
extrapolate only with caution.] The part that makes me grin is that
it illustrates our nascent understanding of the process of
microglial colonization into the CNS, the hows,
, wheres, and whys are still
shrouded in mystery. The broadest outlines tell us that microglial
penetration into the brain is a long running, dynamic process; the
microglia are slow infiltrators, gaining access into parts of the
brain in concert with a swath of proliferating and inhibitory
factors, all at a time of once in a lifetime neurodevelopmental
modifications. Regulation
of postnatal forebrain amoeboid microglial cell proliferation and
development by the transcription factor Runx1
paints a
beautiful portrait of functionality.  Runx1 is a chemical
messenger that participates in phenotyopic determination of blood
cell progenitors into mature cells.  The researchers observed
spatial, time dependent expression of Runx1 in the developing
forebrain, and differential levels following injury.

Here we show that the mouse
transcription factor Runx1, a key regulator of myeloid
cell proliferation and differentiation, is expressed in forebrain
amoeboid microglia during the first two postnatal weeks
Runx1 expression is then downregulated in ramified microglia. Runx1
inhibits mouse amoeboid microglia proliferation and promotes
progression to the ramified state. We show further that
Runx1 expression is upregulated in microglia following nerve injury
in the adult mouse nervous system.
These findings provide
insight into the regulation of postnatal microglia activation and
maturation to the ramified state and have implications for
microglia biology in the developing and injured brain.

It doesn’t really tell us much about a
persistent change in microglia per se, but it does render a picture
of proliferation and differentiation as an easily
symphony.  When we think about the
developing brain, I won’t pretend to have more than a lightyear
close guess at what microglia might be doing
differently between amoeboid and ramified
morphologies in this locale, at this time, but I
very highly doubt there isn’t
a functional impact on microenvironment neurodevelopment; our
developing brains are using opportunities like the Indians used the
buffalo, no waste, no excess, and because balance is important,
everything is important. Moving back to the
question of the plausibility of a pathway to the autism state,
luckily (or unluckily?) the literature is veritably littered with
insults that perturb microglial development, leading to
 persistent changes to microglial morphology, ultimately
percolating up to behavioral changes. Prenatal stress is a bad, bad
thing, and here is a study that finds that extreme mice stress can
persistently alter the mice activation profile of mice microglia.
stress increases the expression of proinflammatory cytokines and
exacerbates the inflammatory response to LPS in the hippocampal
formation of adult male mice
, was just published, and
comes wrapped up with a double hit, and
different resting and stimulated neuroimmune environments.

Under basal conditions,
prenatally stressed animals showed increased expression of
interleukin 1ß and tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF-a) in the
hippocampus and an increased percentage of microglia cells with
reactive morphology in CA1 compared to non-stressed males.
Furthermore, prenatally stressed mice showed increased TNF-a
immunoreactivity in CA1 and increased number of Iba-1
immunoreactive microglia and GFAP-immunoreactive astrocytes in the
dentate gyrus after LPS administration. In contrast, LPS did not
induce such changes in non-stressed animals. These
findings indicate that prenatal stress induces a basal
proinflammatory status in the hippocampal formation during
adulthood that results in an enhanced activation of microglia and
astrocytes in response to a proinflammatory

Note: I have not read this
paper so I do not know if a qualitative number of microglia, or
just more immune-targeted microglia were found, but likely the
latter. A similar, full free paper, Prenatal
stress causes alterations in the morphology of microglia and the
inflammatory response of the hippocampus of adult female
, found broadly similar results; perturbed resting
and stimulated states in the treatment group.

Prenatal stress, per se,
increased IL1ß mRNA levels in the hippocampus, increased the total
number of Iba1-immunoreactive microglial cells and increased the
proportion of microglial cells with large somas and retracted
cellular processes. In addition, prenatally stressed and
non-stressed animals showed different responses to peripheral
inflammation induced by systemic administration of LPS.
LPS induced a significant increase in mRNA levels of IL-6,
TNF-a and IP10 in the hippocampus of prenatally stressed mice but
not of non-stressed animals.

Going back to my
ramblings on glial priming
, it seems that here we have an
example of a type of cross system priming (sweet!), where
disturbing the stress response system changed the immune system;
such is the way of the polyamorous chemical families interacting in
our brain.  It also occurs to me that given the
delicate nature of the developing brain, and the
crazy important
tasks going on in there, we might want to think very
carefully before we ‘induced a significant increase in
mRNA levels of IL-6, TNF-a and IP10 in the hippocampus‘

on subgroups who might be environmentally predisposed to react with
exaggerated vigor.  But what do I know? Of course, the
prenatal immune challenge arena holds a ton of studies on
persistent microglial function, and ‘consequences’.  There are
way too many to list, but a quick overview of some very recent ones
would include: Enduring
consequences of early-life infection on glial and neural cell
genesis within cognitive regions of the brain
, an early
life real infection model with e coli that
concludes, “Taken together, we have provided evidence that
systemic infection with E. coli early in life has significant,
enduring consequences for brain development and subsequent adult
.”  (Staci Bilbo!)  This paper was sort
of a quinella, as it showed both changes in immune responsiveness
into adulthood; it also demonstrated the ability
of an immune insult to alter
the developmental trajectory of the
microglia, i.e., E. coli increased the number of newborn
microglia within the hippocampus and PAR compared to controls. The
total number of microglia was also significantly increased in E.
coli-treated pups, with a concomitant decrease in total
lipopolysaccharide exposure induces long-lasting learning
impairment, less anxiety-like response and hippocampal injury in
adult rats
very directly blasted rats with some LPS
immune activation action, and includes, ”Neonatal LPS
exposure also resulted in sustained inflammatory responses in the
P71 rat hippocampus, as indicated by an increased number of
activated microglia and elevation of interleukin-1ß content in the
rat hippocampus.”  
(Sound familiar?) Interleukin-1
receptor antagonist ameliorates neonatal lipopolysaccharide-induced
long-lasting hyperalgesia in the adult rats
took the
extra step of adding a set of animals that got inhibited
inflammatory responses.  Results are increasingly

administration of an IL-1 receptor antagonist (0.1mg/kg)
significantly attenuated long-lasting hyperalgesia induced by LPS
and reduced the number of activated microglia in the adult rat
brain. These data reveal that neonatal intracerebral LPS
exposure results in long-lasting hyperalgesia and an elevated
number of activated microglia in later life. This effect is similar
to that induced by IL-1ß and can be prevented by an IL-1 receptor

I love how (once again) we
can see how interrupting the immune response can have an effect.
Environmental impacts outside of the immune
activation realm may also find a place within the ‘big tent’ of
microglial agitation with consequent developmental impacts. 
The people who made the first big neuroimmune / autism splash at
Johns Hopkins later came out with Neuroinflammation
and behavioral abnormalities after neonatal terbutaline treatment
in rats: implications for autism
, which found that an
agent used to prevent labor in some situations could
produced a robust increase in microglial activation on PN
30 in the cerebral cortex”
in treatment animals. 
The drug in question, terbutaline, has been weakly associated with
increased incidence of autism, i.e., Prenatal
exposure to ß2-adrenergic receptor agonists and risk of autism
spectrum disorders
, and beta2-adrenergic
receptor activation and genetic polymorphisms in autism: data from
dizygotic twins
. And now, in 2013, Beta-adrenergic
receptor activation primes microglia cytokine production
displays another example of cross system

To determine
if ß-AR stimulation is sufficient to prime microglia, rats were
intra-cerebroventricularly administered isoproterenol (ß-AR
agonist) or vehicle and 24h later hippocampal microglia were placed
in culture with media or LPS. Prior isoproterenol treatment
significantly enhanced IL-1ß and IL-6, but not TNF-a production
following LPS stimulation. These data suggest that central
ß-AR stimulation is sufficient to prime microglia cytokine

In other words, they gave
the rats a drug in the class of terbutline, and subsequently
observed an increased microglia responsiveness in cultured
cells.  What a crazy coincidence. Detecting total
of microglia in adulthood, either regionally
or in the brain as a whole is a little more difficult, the little
buggers are a lot easier to detect when we light them up with neon
green tracers that stick to proteins expressed at ‘activation’
time, and it just doesn’t look like the question has been asked too
many times.  I did, however, find something that has a sort of
chip shot on this analysis, Prenatal
stress alters microglial development and distribution in postnatal
rat brain
, which looked at regional microglia populations
and phenotypes at two time periods following prenatal stress

stress consisting of 20 min of forced swimming occurred on
embryonic days 10–20. On postnatal days 1 and 10, stressed and
control pups were killed. Microglia were identified using Griffonia
 simplicifolia lectin and quantified in the whole encephalon.
In addition, plasma corticosterone was measured in dams at
embryonic day 20, and in pups on postnatal days 1 and 10.
At postnatal day 1, there was an increase in number of
ramified microglia in the parietal, entorhinal and frontal
cortices, septum, basal ganglia, thalamus, medulla oblongata and
internal capsule in the stressed pups as compared to controls, but
also there was a reduction of amoeboid microglia and the total
number of microglia in the corpus callosum.
By postnatal
day 10, there were no differences in the morphologic type or the
distribution of microglia between the prenatal stress and control
groups, except in the corpus callosum; where prenatal stress
decreased the number of ramified microglia. The stress procedure
was effective in producing plasma rise in corticosterone levels of
pregnant rats at embryonic day 20 when compared to same age
controls. Prenatal stress reduced the number of immature
microglia and promoted an accelerated microglial differentiation
into a ramified form.

They did a lot
of clever stuff at analysis time, taking samples from several
locations after birth and ten days later, and
also did some fine grained classification of the
shape of the microglia.  They include spatial and temporal
mappings of four microglial developmental profiles.  It looks
as if prental stress was able to alter the developmental speed of
microglia from one morphology to another in different parts of the
brain.  There was as small section in the discussion that
speculated on what such changes might mean for neurodevelopment.

Given that during the
early postnatal period occur numerous brain developmental processes
(e.g. neurogenesis, myelination, synaptogenesis, astrogliogenesis,
neuronal cell death and blood–brain barrier maturation) [6, 19, 22,
25, 36, 52] it is possible that altered microglial
development induced by in utero stress may affect other
developmental processes either changing microenvironment molecular
constitution or triggering earlier inflammatory changes secondary
to the blood–brain barrier opening induced by prenatal
.  Although punctual, the altered microglial
development might alter extensively the other
neurodevelopmental processes
ensuing perdurable
structural changes
; for example it is possible that the
change in the distribution pattern of microglia in the prenatal
stress group may render vulnerable some neuroanatomic
regions due to the reduction of neurotrophic factors
such as the corpus callosum where there is a continuous axonal

No kidding! [There is also some very
interesting notes regarding microglial participation in purkinje
cell death that deserves and entire post. . .] This should be the
point that any rational observer must accept that we several lines
of evidence that early life experiences can persistently alter
microglial function with plausible mechanisms that could affect
neurodevelopment.  Our data concerning total population
numbers in adulthood is a lot more difficult to come by, but I
think this will probably be getting looked at soon enough. Of
course, in any particular individual it is difficult (or
impossible?) to know how they may have arrived at a state of
increased microglial activation, but at the same time, it is not as
if we have no clue on possible pathways to this destination; our
short list of environmental factors includes immune insult, stress,
and chemical agents. If the question is, ‘what are the microglia
doing in the autism population?’, one plausible answer is ‘their
phenotype was persistently altered by an early life event through a
developmental programming model’. As I was mulling all of this
over, two things happened.  First, a maternal CRP
came out, and found a pretty strong relationship
between direct measurements of mommy inflammation with increased
risk of baby autism.  The nice part is that they had a
gigantic data set (1.2M births!) to work with thanks to a few
decades of single payer medicine.  (Very

For maternal CRP
levels in the highest quintile, compared with the lowest quintile,
there was a significant, 43% elevated
This finding suggests that
maternal inflammation may have a significant role in autism, with
possible implications for identifying preventive strategies and
pathogenic mechanisms in autism and other neurodevelopmental

Just after that paper came out, I
made some Fred Flintstone style beef ribs.  I ‘primed’ the
meat with a Moroccan inspired spice rub overnight, then
slow, slow, slow cooked them with a
low, low, low heat all day
, and blasted away with a date glaze under the
broiler just before go time and they were caveman style
primal fucking awesome
.  The key to arriving there
was the slow cooking. The rib preparation
process got me thinking about our population wide experiment
in replacing infection with inflammation
where we have
traded in death by pathogens or other once fatal ailments in
exchange for a longer life frequently plagued by conditions
associated with higher inflammation.  Our analysis on long
term alterations to microglial proliferation and morphology is
largely comprised of studying acute insults
(sound familiar?), i.e., injection of purified bacterial cell
components known to trigger a robust immune response, ten sessions
of mouse based pregnant forced swimming, or exposure to chemicals
with rare and particular exposure routes in humans.  Mostly I
think this is due to the black swan nature of the developmental programming
alongside the very new idea that microglia are
doing jobs other than responding to infections; our models are
crude because of our relative ignorance.  What will we find
when our filters are appropriately powered to detect for chronic,
but subtle insults? It occurs to me that there may be a ribs model
of altered microglial colonization of the fetal brain; it seems
clear that proliferation and differentiation of microglia can
clearly be changed by powerful inputs, but the
chemical messengers that impact that change are closely related (or
the same) as the measurement points in the maternal CRP study.
Could a slow cooking of slightly higher but not acutely
maternal inflammation be participating in the
genesis of autism (in some children) through altering the migration
and proliferation of microglia into the neonatal brain?  Could
the same chemical messengers of inflammation be subtly
the microglia to respond with increased vigor to
insults later in life?  Has our replacement of infection with
inflammation included an unanticipated effect that alters the
developmental pathway of the very cells that help shape our
children’s brains? I don’t think we are (quite) clever enough to
answer these types of questions yet, but we are at least starting
to generate the right kind of data to inform us on how to get
started.  I don’t know what we will find, but the initial data
doesn’t look very good.  In the meantime, I am recommending
you go get some ribs and let them cook all day long.      


Hello friends –

I’ve had a couple of interesting papers land in my pubmed feed the past few weeks that seem to be tangentially touching on something that has been at the back of my mind for a long time; namely, the repeated findings of a state of an ongoing immune response in the CNS of the autism population, coupled with a behavioral state that is either static, or in many cases, showing gradual improvement over time.  [Discussions of ongoing immune response in the brain in autism, here, here, or here].  This is exactly the opposite of what I expected.  Most of the conditions I had generally associated with a state of neuroinflammation, i.e., Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s show a behavioral profile opposite to autism over time, i.e., a deterioration of skills and cognitive abilities.   The diagnosis for these conditions is never a straight line or a gradual curve upwards, but a dispassionately reliable trajectory of a downward spiral.

This is something that has been really bugging me a lot as a riddle, I’ve mentioned it here in comments, and other places on the Internet.  While outright signs of neuroinflammation are clearly associated with conditions you would rather not have, as opposed to have, we must admit that the available evidence tells us that  we cannot just wave our hands, say ‘neuroinflammation!’, and know much more than the broad strokes.  [Note: In my early days of my AutismNet life, my view was somewhat less nuanced.]  I think that part of what was bothering me is the result of an oversimplified model in my mind’s eye, but I’d formed that model on top of a set of measurements that had empirical precision but underpowered understandings, alongside a more fundamental lack of knowledge.

We know a little more now.

The first paper that really got me thinking along these lines was Synaptic pruning by microglia is necessary for normal brain development, (discussed on this blog, here), which provided evidence of microglial involvement in the ‘pruning’ of synapses, an important step in brain development thought to streamline neural communication by optimizing neuron structure.  This was the first paper I’d read that hinted at microglia participation in ‘normal’ brain function; it was only very recently that microglia were considered to have any role in non pathological states.  Another paper, Microglial Cx3cr1 knockout prevents neuron loss in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, also implicated microglia in synaptic pruning.

Then I got myself a copy of The role of microglia at synapses in the healthy CNS: novel insights from recent imaging studies. It is a review of several recent studies on the non-excited life of microglia.

In the healthy brain, quiescent microglia continuously remodel their shape by extending and retracting highly motile processes. Despite a seemingly random sampling of their environment, microglial processes specifically interact with subsets of synaptic structures, as shown by recent imaging studies leading to proposed reciprocal interactions between microglia and synapses under non-pathological conditions. These studies revealed that various modalities of microglial dynamic behavior including their interactions with synaptic elements are regulated by manipulations of neurotransmission, neuronal activity and sensory experience. Conversely, these observations implied an unexpected role for quiescent microglia in the elimination of synaptic structures by specialized mechanisms that include the phagocytosis of axon terminals and dendritic spines. In light of these recent discoveries, microglia are now emerging as important effectors of neuronal circuit reorganization.

This review by Tremblay was published in 2012, evidence of the nascent nature of our available data on microglial involvement in the normal brain environment; Tremblay states that part of the reason this type of finding is so recent is the relative difficulty of measuring microglia in non excited states.  They were the electrons of brain measurements; our previous attempts to measure them were capable of causing them to change morphology.

The roles of ‘resting’ or immunologically quiescent microglia have remained relatively unknown (also see Tremblay et al., 2011). This is largely due to the difficulties of studying microglia in their non-activated state. Microglia respond promptly to any changes occurring in their environment, and therefore experimental ex vivo and in vitro preparations inevitably result in transformation of their normally prevailing behavior.


Anyway, some new whizbang technologies (i.e., in vivo two-photon laser scanning microscopy)[?] are allowing researchers to peer into the ho-hum everyday activities of ‘non activated’ microglia, and what they are finding is that the term ‘activated microglia’ might be a bit of a misnomer, microglia have been participating in brain function all along, it is just that our filters were insignificantly powered to detect some of their actions until very recently.   Several studies have shown that so called ‘resting’ microglia are constantly evaluating their environment with protusions that seemed to operate rather quickly in relationship to other types of neurons.

This unexpected behavior suggested that resting or surveillant microglia may continuously survey the brain parenchyma as part of their immune function, which would justify the substantial expenditure of energy required to continuously maintain microglial dynamics in the normal brain, without excluding the possibility of an additional, distinct contribution to normal brain physiology

Several papers are reviewed that utilized a couple of highly technical methods, including double roll your own transgenic mouse models to visualize the interactions of microglia in a non excited state and synapses.  Specific areas of the brain were measured in different studies, microglia were observed transiently engaging with neurons and seemed to target some dendrites for removal.  The authors speculate that this could be a mechanism by which neuronal network maintenance, plasticity, could be affected.

In the mature healthy CNS, neuronal networks are continuously remodeled through the formation, modification and elimination of synaptic structures (see Fortin et al. (2011) for molecular mechanisms of structural plasticity) in relation with behavioral and sensory experience.


To determine a possible role of surveillant microglia in the structural remodeling of synaptic structures under normal physiological conditions, Tremblay et al. (2010b) also examined the size changes of spines and terminals before, during and after microglial contacts. Spines contacted by microglial processes during imaging (30–120 min sessions) were found to be smaller initially than those which remained non-contacted. Spines, but not terminals, also underwent transient increases in size during microglial contact, with smaller spines showing the most pronounced changes. Surprisingly, chronic imaging over 2 days further revealed a statistically significant difference in the elimination rate of microglia-contacted spines: spines contacted by microglia were more frequently eliminated than non-contacted spines (24 versus 7%; P  0.05), and in all cases, only the small spines were seen to disappear. These observations suggest that despite an apparently random sampling of the parenchyma, microglial processes specifically target a subset of small, structurally dynamic and transient dendritic spines.

There is also some description of studies that seemed to indicate that the microglial/synapse interactions could be modified through environmental stimulus, two experiments were described involving sensory deprivation and consequent changes in microglia activity.  Other experiments described changes in microglial surveillance as a result of induced changes in neuronal excitability by chemical agonists or antagonists of glutamate receptors.  [Perhaps this is the basis of the curious findings in Neuroprotective function for ramified microglia in hippocampal excitotoxicity?]

In their concluding statements, Tremblay provides a good description of just how little we know, and in a style that I love, poses open questions for the newer rounds of literature to address.

Since the recent studies have barely scratched the surface (of the brain in this case), the modalities of microglial interactions with excitatory and inhibitory synapses throughout the CNS, much as their functional significance and particular cellular and molecular mechanisms still remain undetermined. For example, in which contexts do quiescent microglia directly phagocytose axon terminals and dendritic spines, use other mechanisms such as proteolytic remodeling of the extracellular space, or refrain from intervening?  How do surveillant microglia recognize and respond to the various molecular signals in their environment, including dynamic changes in neurotransmission and neuronal activity at individual synapses? How do these immune cells cooperate with other glial cells, as well as peripheral myeloid cells, in maintaining or shaping neuronal architecture and activity? And, as in the case of microglial memory of past immune challenges (see Bilbo et al., 2012), do surveillant microglia somehow remember their previous behavioral states, the flux of information processing in the brain, or the structural changes of synaptic elements in recent and not so recent windows of intervention?

The last sentence there, I think, is especially salient considered within a context of developmental programming.

So what we’ve learned is that decades after the discovery of microglia cells as the immune regulators in the CNS, they appear to also be participating in more fundamental maintenance of the neural structure of our brains; there is increasing evidence of direct relationships in synaptic and axonal removal as well as roles in neurotransmission and the regulation of excitability.   Is more on the horizon?

But what about autism and our apparent autism paradox of a static or improving behavioral state alongside conditions of immune activation within the CNS?

Well, I have also been thinking about two brain scanning studies that have come out not too long ago, Neuron Number in Children With Autism (Courchesne et all) , which found increased numbers of neurons in the autism cohort, and Differences in White Matter Fiber Tract Development Present From 6 to 24 Months in Infants With Autism (Wolff et all) which found that the autism group showed denser bundled of white matter, so called wiring, between different parts of the brain.  In both of these studies mention is made of the fact that it was possible that their findings, increased cell numbers could be the result of inappropriate removal of excess neurons during development.

Apoptotic mechanisms during the third trimester and early postnatal life normally remove subplate neurons, which comprise about half the neurons produced in the second trimester. A failure of that key early developmental process could also create a pathological excess of cortical neurons.


For example, differences in structural organization prior to a period of experience-dependent development related to social cognition (52–54) may decrease neural plasticity through limitations on environmental input, preventing typical neural specialization (52). These alterations could have a ripple effect through decreasing environmental responsiveness and escalating invariance*, thus canalizing a specific neural trajectory that results in the behavioral phenotype that defines ASDs. In typical development, the selective refinement of neural connections through axonal pruning (55) along with constructive processes such as myelination (56) combine to yield efficient signal transmission among brain regions. One or both of these mechanisms may underlie the widespread differences in white matter fiber pathways observed in the current study. 

* 😦

So, we have growing evidence of microglial participation of neural maintenance alongside growing evidence of impaired maintenance in the autism cohort.

Can our autism paradox be explained by microglia converging in the center of these related lines of thought?  Is the answer to our riddle that the ongoing immune response in the brain is not sufficiently powered, or targeted, to cause increasing loss of abilities, but instead, was enough to keep critical, once in a lifetime chances for brain organization from occurring?  Are increased neuron number and altered white matter tracts the result of microglia not performing the expected maintenance of the brain?  Are the findings from Courchesne and Wolff the opportunity costs of having a microglia activated during decisive developmental timeframes?

That is a pretty neat idea to consider.

Even without the Courchesne and Wolff, the findings that specifically mention impaired network maintenance as possible culprits, the findings of active participation of ‘non-active’ microglia in brain optimization and normal processes is a very problematic finding for another autism canard, the idea that findings of neuroinflammation may not be pathological.  The intellectually honest observer will admit that the crux of this defense lay in vaccine count trial testimony presented by John Hopkin’s researchers after their seminal neuroinflammation paper was published.  Unfortunately, the vigor with which this testimony is trotted out online does not match the frequency with which such ideas actually percolate into the literature.

But with the data from Tremblay, Paolicelli, and others, such an idea becomes even more difficult to defend, we must now speculate on a mechanism by which either microglia could be in an excited state and continue to perform streamlining of the neural structure, or insist that it is possible that microglia were not excited during development, and something else happened to interfere with neuron numbers, and then, subsequently the microglia became chronically activated.

This is unlikely, and unlikelier still when we consider that anyone proposing such a model must do so with enough robustness to overcome a biologically plausible pathway supported by a variety of studies.  And that is only if there was anything underneath the vapor!  Make no mistake, if you ever press someone to actually defend, with literature, the mechanisms by which a state of chronic neuroinflammation might be beneficial in autism, or even the result of something else that also causes autism, no further elucidation of that mechanism is ever forthcoming.  There isn’t anything there.

At some point, it becomes incumbent of people wishing to make an argument that they propose a biologically plausible mechanism if they wish to continue to be taken seriously.  If they cannot, if the literature cannot be probed to make such a case with more empirical support than it might be, the notion so add odds with available evidence should be summarily discarded, unless and until a transcendent set of findings is presented.  There should always be room for more findings in our worldview, but precious limited space for faith in the face of contradictory findings.

–          pD

Hello friends –

Lately I’ve found myself reading papers and knowing and owning several of the references; tragically I can’t tell if I’m reading the right research and am onto something, or I am chasing phantoms and my web of pubmed alerts and reading interests are funneling my reference list into a narrowing echo chamber of sorts.   With that warning in mind, we can proceed to poking around several papers, only some of which mention autism per se.  Along the way, we will see evidence supporting the possibility of a biologically plausible mechanism of developmental programming of the neuroimmune environment, a sequence of events that may lead to impaired synaptic pruning in (some cases of?) autism.

By now, everyone has seen/read/heard about one form or another of the ‘a massive asteroid is going to destroy the world’ story.  One of the common survival strategies from an asteroid strike involves altering the path of the asteroid so that it misses the Earth.  The thoughtful analysis of this problem allows for the physics based reality of the problem, moving an asteroid out of an extinction based trajectory involves just a little work when the asteroid is ten thousand gazillion miles away, but a lot more work when it is only a gazillion miles away.  Upon careful evaluation living organisms display similar behavior, relatively minor disturbances in early life can alter the developmental trajectory, while that same disturbance later in life is unable to materially affect the organism beyond a transient effect.   The accumulated evidence that early life experiences can shape the adult outcome is nearly impossible to dispute with any remaining intellectual honesty, the question is instead, is how large is the effect in autism?

This analogy adequately symbolizes one of the more beautiful and terrifying concepts I’ve come across researching autism, that of ‘developmental programming’, which I blogged some about here, but essentially is the idea that there are critical timeframes during which environmental impacts can have long term persistent effects on a wide range of outcomes.  The most robustly replicated findings involve changes to metabolic profiles in response to abnormal prenatal nutritional environments, but there is also evidence of various other effects, including neurological, and reputable speculation, that autism, may in fact, be in part, a disorder of developmental programming.

Secondarily, there has long been speculation of problems in the removal of ‘excess’ synapses, i.e., ‘synaptic pruning’ in the autism population.   This culling of synapses begins in fetal life continuing throughout adolescence and the repeated observations of increased head circumference during infancy as a risk factor for autism has resulted in the idea that altered synaptic pruning maybe involved in autism.

In the last month or so several rather serendipitously themed papers have been published with tantalizing clues about some of the finer grained mechanisms of synaptic pruning, the possibility of impaired synaptic pruning in the autism population, and a known risk factor for autism that models a developmental programming event sequence that may tie them together.

First off, we have Synaptic pruning by microglia is necessary for normal brain development, (Paolicelli et all) with a very straightforward title, that has this dynamite in the abstract: (snipped for length)

These findings link microglia surveillance to synaptic maturation and suggest that deficits in microglia function may contribute to synaptic abnormalities seen in some neurodevelopmental disorders.

This paper is short, but pretty cool, and very nice from a new territory perspective.  It also speaks directly towards one of the increasingly hilarious obfuscations you will sometimes see raised in online discussions about immunological findings in autism, namely, that we can’t know if the state of chronic inflammation in the CNS observed in autism is harmful or beneficial.   [hint: It might not be causative, but it isn’t beneficial.]

Here’s is a snippet from the Introduction:

Time-lapse imaging has shown that microglia processes are highly motile even in the uninjured brain and that they make frequent, but transient contact with synapses. This and other observations have led to the hypothesis that microglia monitor synaptic function and are involved in synapse maturation or elimination.  Moreover, neurons during this period up-regulate the expression of the chemokine fractalkine, Cx3cl1, whose receptor in the central nervous system is exclusively expressed by microglia and is essential for microglia migration. If, in fact, microglia are involved in scavenging synapses, then this activity is likely to be particularly important during synaptic maturation when synaptic turnover is highest.

Nice.  A time dependent participation by microglia in the critical process of optimization of neuron numbers, a process we are still very much groping our way in the dark towards untangling.  The researchers focused in on a particular molecular target, a chemical messenger of the immune system, fractalkine, and found that without fractalkine, the process of synaptic turnover was impaired.

A couple of tests were performed, first immunohistochemistry (i.e., exceedingly clever manipulation of antibodies to determine the presence or absence of proteins in very specific locations) which demonstrated that microglia were, in fact, ‘engulfing synaptic material’ in animals during periods of synaptic maturation.

Secondly, so called ‘knock out mice’ (i.e., genetically engineered mice constructed without the ability to make a specific protein, in this case, fractalkine) were used evaluate for changes in synaptic form and function based on a lack of fractalkine.  Changes in dendritic spine density were observed in the knock out mice group, with much higher densities in a very specific type of neuron during the second and third postnatal week of life.  The authors indicate this is a key timeframe in synaptic pruning, and state their findings are “suggesting a transient deficient synaptic pruning in Cx3cr1 knockout mice “.  The effect of not having fractalkine on spine density was time dependent as shown below.

Several other measurements were taken, including synaptic firing frequencies, which also implicated an increased surface area for synapses on dendritic spines, consistent with impaired pruning.  Time dependent effects on synaptic efficiency and seizure susceptibility were also found, which the led the authors to conclude that the findings were “consistent with a delay in brain circuit development at the whole animal level.”

For additional evidence of fractalkine participation in synaptic maintenance, we can look to the opposite direction, where researchers evaluating neuron loss in an Alzheimers model reported “Knockout of the microglial chemokine receptor Cx3cr1, which is critical in neuron-microglia communication, prevented neuron loss”.  Taken together, the conclusion that fractalkine processing is involved with neuron maintenance is highly likely, and correspondingly, highly unlikely to be a set of spurious findings.

There’s a couple paragraphs on potential mechanisms by which fractalkine could be interacting with microglia to achieve this effect, with the authors claiming that their data and other data generally supports a model wherein microglia were not effectively recruited to appropriate locations in the brain due to a lack of fractalkine, or, a ‘transient reduction in microglia surveillance.’

The conclusion is a good layman level wrap up that speaks toward the Interconnectedness of the brain and the immune system:

In conclusion, we show that microglia engulf and eliminate synapses during development. In mice lacking Cx3cr1, a chemokine receptor expressed by microglia in the brain, microglia numbers were transiently reduced in the developing brain and synaptic pruning was delayed. Deficient synaptic pruning resulted in an excess of dendritic spines and immature synapses and was associated with a persistence of electrophysiological and pharmacological hallmarks of immature brain circuitry. Genetic variation in Cx3cr1 along with environmental pathogens that impact microglia function may contribute to susceptibility to developmental disorders associated with altered synapse number. Understanding  microglia-mediated synaptic pruning is likely to lead to a better understanding of synaptic homeostasis and an appreciation of interactions between the brain and immune system

That’s all pretty cool, but there was precious little discussion of autism, except in the general sense of a ‘developmental disorder associated with altered synapse number’.   [But the references do speak to autism, the first reference provided, Dendritic Spines in Fragile X Mice displays a significant relationship to autism, and it describes how another flavor of knock out mice, this time designed to mimic Fragile-X, exhibit a ‘developmental delay in the downregulation of spine turnover and in the transition from immature to mature spine subtypes.’  Go figure!]

The other reason Paolicelli is of particular interest to the autism discussion is one of the major players in this study, the microglia (i.e., the resident immune cells of the CNS), have been found to be ‘chronically activated’ in the autism brain by direct  measurement in two studies (here, and here, [and by me, here]), and tons of other studies have shown indirect evidence of an ongoing state of immunological alertness in the autism brain.

Considering this is a brand new paper, I do not believe that there are any studies illuminating the results of a state of chronic activation of microglia on the process of synaptic pruning per se.  I will, however, go on the record that such an effect is very, very likely, and the logical leap is microscopically small that there will be some detrimental impact to such a state.  The inverse argument, a scenario wherein there could be a state of chronic microglial activation that does not interfere with microglia participation in the synaptic pruning requires logical acrobatics worthy of Cirque Du Soleil.  I am open to evidence, however.

So, from Paolicelli, we know that a ‘transient reduction in microglial surveillance’ induced by a reduction in the ability to production fractalkine can result in a condition ‘consistent with a delay in brain circuit development at the whole animal level’.

Next up, we have a paper that was all over the JerkNet in the days and weeks following its release, Neuron number and size in prefrontal cortex of children with autism.  This is a cool study, and likely a very important paper, but I must say that a lot of the online commentary exhibits an irrational exuberance towards one part of the findings.   Here is part of the abstract.

Children with autism had 67% more neurons in the PFC (mean, 1.94 billion; 95% CI, 1.57-2.31) compared with control children (1.16 billion; 95% CI, 0.90-1.42; P = .002), including 79% more in DL-PFC (1.57 billion; 95% CI, 1.20-1.94 in autism cases vs 0.88 billion; 95% CI, 0.66-1.10 in controls; P = .003) and 29% more in M-PFC (0.36 billion; 95% CI, 0.33-0.40 in autism cases vs 0.28 billion; 95% CI, 0.23-0.34 in controls; P = .009). Brain weight in the autistic cases differed from normative mean weight for age by a mean of 17.6% (95% CI, 10.2%-25.0%; P = .001), while brains in controls differed by a mean of 0.2% (95% CI, -8.7% to 9.1%; P = .96). Plots of counts by weight showed autistic children had both greater total prefrontal neuron counts and brain weight for age than control children.  [PFC == prefrontal cortex]

Essentially the authors used a variety of mechanisms to measure neuron number in a specific area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, and found large variations (increases) in the autism group.   The prefrontal cortex is thought to be involved in ‘planning complex coginitive behaviors’, and ‘moderating correct social behavior’, among others, so this was a smart place to look.

The implicit hype on the internet is that this firmly indicates a ‘prenatal cause’ to autism, but if you read the paper, read what Courchense has said, and read recent literature, you know that the simplicity of this as a singular prenatal cause of autism is long broad strokes, and short on appreciation of the subtlety that textures reality.

A link @ LBRB sent me to the team at The Thinking Person’s Guide To Autism, who had a very nice transcription of a talk given by Courchesne at IMFAR 2011.  Here is a snipet that started my wheels turning.

What we see in autism is either an excess proliferation, producing an overabundance of neuron numbers, or the excess might be due to a reduced ability to undergo naturally occurring cell death. Or it could be both. We don’t know which and our data don’t speak to that, although our data do suggest that it’s probably both.

Finally, our evidence shows that across time, there’s a prolonged period of apoptosis, removal and remodeling of circuits. In order to get back to where neuron numbers are supposed to be, it takes a very long time for the autistic brain. In the normal developing brain, this takes just a few months. In autism, it’s a couple of decades.

[Note how well this fits within the model described by Paolicelli, i.e., “consistent with a delay in brain circuit development at the whole animal level”.  ]

I would highly recommend anyone who has read this far to go read the entire post @ TPGTA sometime.

As far as synaptic pruning goes, here is the associated segment of the paper:

Apoptotic mechanisms during the third trimester and early postnatal life normally remove subplate neurons, which comprise about half the neurons produced in the second trimester. A failure of that key early developmental process could also create a pathological excess of cortical neurons. A failure of subplate apoptosis might additionally indicate abnormal development of the subplate itself. The subplate plays a critical role in the maturation of layer 4 inhibitory functioning as well as in the early stages of thalamocortical and corticocortical connectivity development.inhibitory functioning and defects of functional and structural connectivity are characteristic of autism, but the causes have remained elusive.

Nearly half of the neurons in the area studied are expected to be removed through pruning, a process that extends well after birth.  That is something that you didn’t see referenced in too many places trumpeting this study as ‘proof’ that autism was caused by disturbances in the prenatal environment.  I’m not coming down on the prenatal environment as a critical timeframe for autism pathogensesis, just the difficult to defend underlying notion that this is the only time the environment should be evaluated, or the idea that if something is initiated prenatally other timeframes are therefore, unimportant.

So, I’d read that microglia were actively involved in proper synaptic pruning, contingent on utilization of fractalkine, and then read that impaired synaptic apoptotic mechanisms could be participating in autism, with a consequence of an over abundance of neurons.

Then, I got myself a copy of Microglia and Memory: Modulation by Early-Life Infection, which is another study in a growing body of evidence that immune challenges early in life can have unpredictable physiological consequences.  (This is another very cool paper with Staci Bilbo as an author, whom I think is seriously onto something.)  This study, in particular, focused on interactions microglia and formation of memories.   Here is the abstract:

The proinflammatory cytokine interleukin-1ß (IL-1ß) is critical for normal hippocampus (HP)-dependent cognition, whereas high levels can disrupt memory and are implicated in neurodegeneration. However, the cellular source of IL-1ß during learning has not been shown, and little is known about the risk factors leading to cytokine dysregulation within the HP. We have reported that neonatal bacterial infection in rats leads to marked HP-dependent memory deficits in adulthood. However, deficits are only observed if unmasked by a subsequent immune challenge [lipopolysaccharide (LPS)] around the time of learning. These data implicate a long-term change within the immune system that, upon activation with the “second hit,” LPS, acutely impacts the neural processes underlying memory. Indeed, inhibiting brain IL-1ß before the LPS challenge prevents memory impairment in neonatally infected (NI) rats. We aimed to determine the cellular source of IL-1ß during normal learning and thereby lend insight into the mechanism by which this cytokine is enduringly altered by early-life infection. We show for the first time that CD11b+ enriched cells are the source of IL-1ß during normal HP-dependent learning. CD11b+ cells from NI rats are functionally sensitized within the adult HP and produce exaggerated IL-1ß ex vivo compared with controls. However, an exaggerated IL-1ß response in vivo requires LPS before learning. Moreover, preventing microglial activation during learning prevents memory impairment in NI rats, even following an LPS challenge. Thus, early-life events can significantly modulate normal learning-dependent cytokine activity within the HP, via a specific, enduring impact on brain microglial function.

Briefly, the authors infected rats four days after birth with e-coli, and then challenged them with LPS in adulthood to simulate the immune system to evaluate if memory formation was affected.   As further evidence of an immune mediated effect, prevention of microglial activation in adulthood was sufficient to attenuate the effect.  Clearly the effect on memory formation was based on the immune system.  (Note:  Most of the studies I’ve read would indicate [i.e., educated guess] that a four day old rat is brain developmentally similar to the third trimester of a human fetus.)  While a terrifying and beautiful expression of developmental programming in its own right, there isn’t much to speak towards synaptic pruning in this paper, except maybe, potentially, one part of their findings.

In our study, CX3CL1 did not differ by group, whereas its receptor was decreased basally in NI rats, implicating a change at the level of microglia.

This is where things get either highly coincidental, or connected.  CX3CL1 is another name for fractalkine, i.e., animals that were infected in early life had decreased expression of the receptor for fractalkine compared to placebo animals, i.e., fractalkine is the same chemical messenger found to be integral in the process of synaptic pruning in Synaptic pruning by microglia is necessary for normal brain development!  From a functionality standpoint, having less receptor is very similar to having less fractalkine; as the animals in Microglial Cx3cr1 knockout prevents neuron loss in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease tell us.

If, if synaptic apoptotic processes are impaired in autism, perhaps this is one mechanism of action. The timeline would involve a prenatal immune challenge, which causes a persistent decrease fractalkine receptor expression, which in turn, causes a consequent impairment in synaptic pruning through interference in microglial targeting.  There is near universal agreement that immune disturbances in utero are capable of altering developmental trajectory undesirably, and here, in an animal model, we have evidence that infections are capable of reducing availability of receptors of ligands known to play a critical role in synaptic pruning, the absence of which leads to conditions which are “consistent with a delay in brain circuit development at the whole animal level”. 

Only time, and more research, will tell if this is a pattern, a phantom, or a little of both.

–          pD

Hello friends –

I have decidedly mixed feelings on the genetic side of autism research; clearly genetics plays a part, but it does appear that autism has largely mirrored other complicated conditions in that what we thought we were getting when we cracked the genetic code has, for all practical purposes, failed to materialize.  To what extent our genetic makeup really plays a part in autism more than any other condition that is currently mystifying us, I don’t think we can say with much certainty; unless you want to count some.

To my mind, one particularly bright spot in the gene realm is the associations of the MET-C allele and an increased risk of an autism diagnosis.  At first glance, MET doesn’t seem like a big deal; lots of people have the MET-C mutation, in fact, nearly half of everyone has it.   But people with autism have it just a little more frequently, an observation that has been replicated many times.  But what is exciting is not only that the MET-C findings are robust, but they can also affect a lot of implicated systems in autism in biologically relevant ways.  From an ideological standpoint, the fissure in the autism community about research priorities regarding genetics versus environment, the MET-C studies are a superb example of just how much useful knowledge there is by starting at the genome and working upwards, and finding once we get there that the reality involves lots more than just genes.  There is something for everyone!

Getting to the big picture where we can appreciate the beautiful complexity takes a little bit of digging, but it’s worth the effort. 

Every now and again you’ll see a period piece about the forties, fifties or sixties, and you’ll get a glimpse of the female operator, someone who would take a call and literally connect two parties together; the gatekeeper. The operator’s actions were binary; either she connected the lines and the call went through, or she didn’t, and nothing happened.  Of course, one operator couldn’t connect you to any other phone, but participated in groupings of phones with some logical or functional structure.  Ultimately, the operators were the enabler of communication, physically putting two entities into contact to perform whatever business they had with each other. 

Within our bodies, tyrosine kinases  are enzymes responsible transferring phosphate to proteins; a chemical exchange critical towards a great number of cellular functions, and in a sense, the tyrosine kinases act as cellular operators, helping implement a physical swap of chemicals that ultimately set in motion a great number of processes.  Some very rudimentary cellular functions are initiated by the tyrosine kinases; for example, cell division, which is why mutated kinases can lead to the generation of tumors; i.e., the signaling for cell division gets turned on, and never gets turned off.  Inhibiting tyrosine kinases is the mechanism of action for some drugs that target cancer.  

The MET gene is responsible for creating the MET receptor tyrosine kinase.  This particular receptor is involved in lots of processes that are of great interest to autism; the MET receptor is expressed heavily during embryogenesis in the brain, has immune modulating capacities, and is associated with wound healing, and is particularly implicated in repair of the gastro-intestinal track. 

Kinases don’t just fire away, shuttling phosphates around any old time, they must be activated by a triggering molecule, or a ligand.  There is only one known ligand for the MET receptor; hepatocyte growth factor, or HGF (also sometimes referred to as HGF/SF, or hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor).  We’ll get to why we bother worrying about HGF a little later on, but it is important to keep in mind that without HGF, the functions affected by the MET-C receptor, early brain development, immune modulating, and wound repair cannot be achieved. 

So what about autism, and why is it a beautiful illustration of complexity?  Walking our way through the MET findings in autism is a rewarding task; it is one of the few instances I’ve seen where the glimpses of relevance gleaned from straight genetic studies have been incrementally built upon to achieve a much grander understanding of autism.  This is the kind of thing that I think a lot of people who dismiss the utility of genetic studies are missing; genetics are only the first piece of the puzzle, it doesn’t only implicate genes, it tells us about the processes and the proteins disturbed in autism; and with that knowledge, we can perform targeted analysis for environmental participants.

The first clues about MET involvement with autism came in 2006, when A genetic variant that disrupts MET transcription is associated with autism (full paper) was published.  The abstract is longish, but here is a snipet:

MET signaling participates in neocortical and cerebellar growth and maturation, immune function, and gastrointestinal repair, consistent with reported medical complications in some children with autism. Here, we show genetic association (P = 0.0005) of a common C allele in the promoter region of the MET gene in 204 autism families. The allelic association at this MET variant was confirmed in a replication sample of 539 autism families (P = 0.001) and in the combined sample (P = 0.000005). Multiplex families, in which more than one child has autism, exhibited the strongest allelic association (P = 0.000007).

I appreciate the pleiotropic nature of what we are seeing here, a gene that is involved with brain growth and maturation, immune function, and GI repair.  The association in ‘multiplex’ (i.e., families with more than one child with autism) was very, very strong.  Even still, this was a pretty short paper, and it was all genetics.  Coolness factor:  3.

Neater studies were on the horizon shortly thereafter, a year later, some of the same group looked for expression of MET in post mortem brain tissue and found significantly decreased levels of MET protein in Disruption of cerebral cortex MET signaling in autism spectrum disorder

MET protein levels were significantly decreased in ASD cases compared with control subjects. This was accompanied in ASD brains by increased messenger RNA expression for proteins involved in regulating MET signaling activity. Analyses of coexpression of MET and HGF demonstrated a positive correlation in control subjects that was disrupted in ASD cases.

This is a nice follow up; lots of times a genetic study might suggest a hit, but we really don’t even know how such a genetic change might manifest physiologically, like having a jigsaw puzzle of solid black and finding two pieces that fit together.  In those instances, we can’t really go looking for different levels of the protein, so there you are.  In this case, the authors found an allele worth investigating, and then went looking to see if relevant proteins were altered in the population, and in the CNS no less!  Not only that, but they also looked at the initiating end of the process, the ligand, HGF, and found abnormalities.  Good stuff.  Unfortunately, I haven’t found myself a copy of this paper yet, but the fact that other proteins in the pathway were altered is another line of evidence that something is amiss.  I’ve begun to appreciate the fact that I have spent a long time under appreciating the interconnectedness of biological systems; you aren’t going to have a disturbance in one system without altering the way upstream, and downstream processes are working; so  the fact that we see other proteins, those related to MET functions, modified, makes beautiful sense.  Coolness factor: 5.

Likely because of the mixed findings of skewed proteins in the MET pathway (?), the next study in line is, Genetic Evidence Implicating Multiple Genes in the MET Receptor Tyrosine Kinase Pathway in Autism Spectrum Disorder (full paper available).  Here’s the abstract:

A functional promoter variant of the gene encoding the MET receptor tyrosine kinase alters SP1 and SUB1 transcription factor binding, and is associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Recent analyses of postmortem cerebral cortex from ASD patients revealed altered expression of MET protein and three transcripts encoding proteins that regulate MET signaling, hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (PLAUR) and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (SERPINE1). To address potential risk conferred by multiple genes in the MET signaling pathway, we screened all exons and 5 promoter regions for variants in the five genes encoding proteins that regulate MET expression and activity. Identified variants were genotyped in 664 families (2,712 individuals including 1,228 with ASD) and 312 unrelated controls. Replicating our initial findings, family-based association test (FBAT) analyses demonstrated that the MET promoter variant rs1858830 C allele was associated with ASD in 101 new families (P=0.033). Two other genes in the MET signaling pathway also may confer risk. A haplotype of the SERPINE1 gene exhibited significant association. In addition, the PLAUR promoter variant rs344781 T allele was associated with ASD by both FBAT (P=0.006) and case-control analyses (P=0.007). The PLAUR promoter rs344781 relative risk was 1.93 (95% Confidence Interval [CI]: 1.12−3.31) for genotype TT and 2.42 (95% CI: 1.38−4.25) for genotype CT compared to genotype CC. Gene-gene interaction analyses suggested a significant interaction between MET and PLAUR. These data further support our hypothesis that genetic susceptibility impacting multiple components of the MET signaling pathway contributes to ASD risk.


We’ve got two new genes added to the mix, PLAUR and SERPINE.  The juicy part here is that the authors didn’t look for these variants at random, but performed a targeted search; they knew that the proteins encoded by these genes interact with either MET receptor function or HGF, and they also had found altered expression of these genes in the CNS study.  From the Introduction:

The hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) gene encodes the activating ligand for the MET receptor. HGF is translated as an inactive precursor protein that requires cleavage for efficient binding to the MET receptor [Lokker et al 1992]. The activating cleavage of HGF is achieved most efficiently by the enzyme plasminogen activator (urokinase-type; uPA; gene symbol: PLAU) under conditions in which uPA binds to its receptor, the urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (uPAR; gene symbol: PLAUR). Activating cleavage of HGF can be suppressed by the plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1; gene symbol: SERPINE1). Together, these proteins regulate the activity of MET receptor tyrosine kinase signaling, and our recent microarray analyses of postmortem temporal lobe of individuals with ASD indicate that disrupted MET signaling may be common to ASD pathophysiology [Campbell et al 2007]. For example, we found that there is increased expression of the HGF, PLAUR and SERPINE1 transcripts in ASD in postmortem cerebral cortex. The observation of disrupted expression suggests a general dysfunction of MET signaling in the cerebral cortex of individuals with ASD.

The proteins encoded by PLAUR and SERPINE were also found increased in the expression study; a finding further supported by the genetic study here.  The really grand slice here is that the SERPINE protein suppresses cleavage of HGF; essentially another way MET function can be affected, from a disturbance upstream of HGF binding.   In other words, more SERPINE (possibly as a result of a ‘promoter allele’) would result in less MET receptor activation because the SERPINE interferes with the cleavage of HGF, and thus, another pathway to reduced MET activation.  In a finding that seems 20/20 with hindsight, a functional promoter of the SERPINE gene was found to increase autism risk; i.e., if you have more SERPINE, you get less functional HGF, and therefore less triggering of the MET receptor.  This is cool and begins a portrait of the complexity; it shows how the effect of reduced MET functionality can come from multiple drivers; the reduced MET allele, or, the promoter SERPINE allele, and what’s more, having both is an even bigger risk; the authors are describing a synergy of low penetrance genes.

From the discussion section of the paper:

Beyond genetic susceptibility, the functional integrity of the MET signaling system also is sensitive to environmental factors. This concept is supported by bioinformatics analyses that identified PLAUR, SERPINE1 and HGF as genes active in immune response regulation, sensitive to environmental exposures, and within chromosomal regions previously implicated in ASD linkage studies [Herbert et al 2006]. Moreover, a recent cell biological study shows that chemically diverse toxicants reduce the expression of MET in oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, a result that is interpreted as the convergence of toxicant effects on oxidative status and the MET-regulating Fyn/c-Cbl pathway

Here are links to the Hebert paper, Autism and environmental genomics, and the Li paper, Chemically Diverse Toxicants Converge on Fyn and c-Cbl to Disrupt Precursor Cell Function.  What is neat here is that we are starting to be able to see a pathway of genes, and resultant proteins, that can effect disparate systems.   I believe that there is a subset of acupuncture, acupressure that relies on more knuckles than needles, and while the science on accu* based therapies isn’t very good, it does occur to me that in a sense, our lattice work of HGF-PLAUR-SERPINE proteins that participate in the MET-C process are pressure points in a delicate system, push a little bit and things will bend down the line accordingly.  It also exemplifies why I am offended by highly negative attitudes on genetic studies held by people who believe in a non trivial, environmentally mediated increase in the rates of autism; we are approaching a nearly impossible to overturn reality that genes we know to be associated with autism are particularly sensitive to interference from environmental agents, and participate in immune function.  That is important information.  Coolness factor 8.  First glimpse of beauty factor: 10.

Next up we have Dynamic gene and protein expression patterns of the autism-associated Met receptor tyrosine kinase in the developing mouse forebrain (full paper). 

The establishment of appropriate neural circuitry depends upon the coordination of multiple developmental events across space and time. These events include proliferation, migration, differentiation, and survival – all of which can be mediated by hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) signaling through the Met receptor tyrosine kinase. We previously found a functional promoter variant of the MET gene to be associated with autism spectrum disorder, suggesting that forebrain circuits governing social and emotional function may be especially vulnerable to developmental disruptions in HGF/Met signaling. However, little is known about the spatiotemporal distribution of Met expression in the forebrain during the development of such circuits. To advance our understanding of the neurodevelopmental influences of Met activation, we employed complementary Western blotting, in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry to comprehensively map Met transcript and protein expression throughout perinatal and postnatal development of the mouse forebrain. Our studies reveal complex and dynamic spatiotemporal patterns of expression during this period. Spatially, Met transcript is localized primarily to specific populations of projection neurons within the neocortex and in structures of the limbic system, including the amygdala, hippocampus and septum. Met protein appears to be principally located in axon tracts. Temporally, peak expression of transcript and protein occurs during the second postnatal week. This period is characterized by extensive neurite outgrowth and synaptogenesis, supporting a role for the receptor in these processes. Collectively, these data suggest that Met signaling may be necessary for the appropriate wiring of forebrain circuits with particular relevance to social and emotional dimensions of behavior.

Coooooool.   Here we touch on the complexity of brain formation, all the little things that need to go exactly right, and how MET might play a role in that incredibly complicated dance.  Even better, a mouse model is used to gain an understanding of where and when peak expression of MET proteins occur, a period of significant changes to neural structures and the formation of synapses, the physical structures that enable thought.   This is a dense paper, too dense to get deeply into blockquoting for this posting, but there are some parts that deserve notice, namely, documentation of spatially localized MET expression in brain areas associated with social behaviors and some fine grained information on the specific parts of synapse formation that utilize MET.    Coolness factor: 8.  Complexity Factor: 12.

Here is a paper that a lot of people that play skeptics on the Internet ought to hate, Distinct genetic risk based on association of MET in families with co-occurring autism and gastrointestinal conditions.  (full paper)

In the entire 214-family sample, the MET rs1858830 C allele was associated with both autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions. Stratification by the presence of gastrointestinal conditions revealed that the MET C allele was associated with both autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions in 118 families containing at least 1 child with co-occurring autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions. In contrast, there was no association of the MET polymorphism with autism spectrum disorder in the 96 families lacking a child with co-occurring autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions. chi(2) analyses of MET rs1858830 genotypes indicated over-representation of the C allele in individuals with co-occurring autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions compared with non-autism spectrum disorder siblings, parents, and unrelated controls.

There is a lot of caution in this paper, but the nice part is that there are biologically plausible mechanisms by which a reduction in MET could snowball into problems in the gastro-intestinal track.

In the gastrointestinal system, MET signaling modulates intestinal epithelial cell proliferation, and thus acts as a critical factor in intestinal wound healing. For example, activation of MET signaling via application of exogenous hepatocyte growth factor has been shown to reduce the effects of experimentally induced colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and diarrhea.

Pushing on the other end of the balloon, increasing MET signaling, has been shown to help GI problems; no less than evidence that a genetic change associated with autism has biologically plausible mechanisms by which GI problems would be more prevalent. In fact, unless our findings of MET alleles are in error, or our clinical findings of the effects of HGF are spurious, it is absolutely expected. There is also a section with the startlingly simple, and simultaneously great idea of why findings like these might be useful markers for phenotypic categorization in studies in the future; i.e., to discern the prevalence of GI problems in autism, it might, for example, make sense to design that study to take presence or absence of MET alleles into consideration.  Nice.  Coolness Factor: 7.  Insidiousness factor: 9.

Here’s another one that found associations with MET and social behavior, and GI disturbances again.  Association of MET with social and communication phenotypes in individuals with autism spectrum disorder

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder diagnosed by impairments in social interaction, communication, and behavioral flexibility. Autism is highly heritable, but it is not known whether a genetic risk factor contributes to all three core domains of the disorder or autism results from the confluence of multiple genetic risk factors for each domain. We and others reported previously association of variants in the gene encoding the MET receptor tyrosine kinase in five independent samples. We further described enriched association of the MET promoter variant rs1858830 C allele in families with co-occurring autism and gastrointestinal conditions. To test the contribution of this functional MET promoter variant to the domains of autism, we analyzed its association with quantitative scores derived from three instruments used to diagnose and describe autism phenotypes: the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), and both the parent and the teacher report forms of the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS). In 748 individuals from 367 families, the transmission of the MET C allele from parent to child was consistently associated with both social and communication phenotypes of autism. Stratification by gastrointestinal conditions revealed a similar pattern of association with both social and communication phenotypes in 242 individuals with autism from 118 families with co-occurring gastrointestinal conditions, but a lack of association with any domain in 181 individuals from 96 families with ASD and no co-occurring gastrointestinal condition. These data indicate that the MET C allele influences at least two of the three domains of the autism triad.

Really sort of plain, but very nice to see the GI component validated in another data set.  Coolness factor 5.

Then a few months ago, Prenatal polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure leads to behavioral deficits and downregulation of receptor tyrosine kinase, MET was released, an uber cool showcase of the autism bigfoot, the often regaled, only very rarely documented, gene/environment interaction. 

Gene by environment interactions (G × E) are thought to underlie neurodevelopmental disorder, etiology, neurodegenerative disorders, including the multiple forms of autism spectrum disorder. However, there is limited biological information, indicating an interaction between specific genes and environmental components. The present study focuses on a major component of airborne pollutants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as benzo(a)pyrene [B(a)P], which negatively impacts cognitive development in children who have been exposed in utero. In our study, prenatal exposure of Cpr(lox/lox) timed-pregnant dams to B(a)P (0, 150, 300, and 600 μg/kg body weight via oral gavage) on embryonic day (E14-E17) consistent with our susceptibility-exposure paradigm was combined with the analysis of a replicated autism risk gene, the receptor tyrosine kinase, Met. The results demonstrate a dose-dependent increase in B(a)P metabolite generation in B(a)P-exposed Cpr(lox/lox) offspring. Additionally, a sustained persistence of hydroxy metabolites during the onset of synapse formation was noted, corresponding to the peak of Met expression. Prenatal B(a)P exposure also downregulated Met RNA and protein levels and dysregulated normal temporal patterns of expression during synaptogenesis. Consistent with these data, transcriptional cell-based assays demonstrated that B(a)P exposure directly reduces human MET promoter activity. Furthermore, a functional readout of in utero B(a)P exposure showed a robust reduction in novel object discrimination in B(a)P-exposed Cpr(lox/lox) offspring. These results confirm the notion that common pollutants, such as the PAH B(a)P, can have a direct negative impact on the regulated developmental expression of an autism risk gene with associated negative behavioral learning and memory outcomes.

Oh snap.  A common pollutant (well, common in the last few decades anyways), is shown to interact with MET in a dose dependent fashion to reduce protein expression in the brain during embryonic development and cause ‘a robust reduction in novel object discrimination’. (Ouch)  This is an example of just what we mentioned above, referenced Herbert, concerning the possibility of MET as a gene sensitive to ‘environmental exposures’.  Indeed.  From the discussions section:

The results from the present study demonstrate that the transcription and developmental expression patterns of a replicated ASD risk gene, MET, are highly sensitive to a common PAH pollutant. In utero exposure to B(a)P produces an oxidative milieu of B(a)P metabolites in offspring during a key postnatal period of synapse development, providing evidence that environmental exposure creates a sustained cerebral cortical burden that likely contributes to an increased oxidative load. Oxidative stressors in the form of metabolites would be expected to negatively impact gene expression (Kerzee and Ramos 2000) and, more specifically, receptor tyrosine kinase function, including Met (Li et al. 2007). These data suggest that B(a)P-induced exposure would impact the expression of key neurodevelopmental genes, including Met. Additionally, the predominance of the 3-OH and 9-OH metabolites places a sustained burden in the brain because of the potential for further oxidization to form B(a)P quinones (McCallister et al. 2008, Hood et al. 2000, Brown et al. 2007) which undergo redox cycling to generate reactive oxygen species (Kerzee and Ramos 2000, Bolton et al., 2000).


In conclusion, specific developmental events such as glutamatergic excitatory synapse formation and maturation may be particularly vulnerable to G x E effects that impact regulatory and signaling proteins involved in this process. While we do not suggest that the current study reflects specific defects related to a complex clinical condition such as the ASDs, current molecular, behavioral and functional imaging data are converging on the concept that the ASDs are a manifestation of altered local and long-distance cortical connectivity (Geschwind et al. 2007, Bill and Geschwind 2009, Geschwind and Levitt, 2007, Levitt and Campbell 2009). Also, Met and other related signaling components of this receptor tyrosine kinase pathway have been implicated in both syndromic and idiopathic disorders where the ASDs are diagnosed at a high rate. In combination with risk alleles in key genes, the in utero exposure to PAHs such as B(a)P, which results in both a reduction in absolute levels and the mistiming of peak Met expression, could drive the system toward a pathophysiological threshold that neither genetic risk nor environmental factors could produce individually. The present study focused on the neocortex, but given the highly restricted spatial and temporal expression of Met in mouse limbic circuits associated with social-emotional development and cognition (Judson et al. 2009), it is likely that perturbations occur throughout these key circuits, including in the hippocampus.

Really cool stuff; particularly the finding that developmental, in utero exposure was capable of driving abnormal protein expression well after birth. This is the best of both sides of the genetics versus environment conundrum; the kind of finding that sheds light on how environmental pollutants could be participating in increasing the number of children with autism by interacting with genetically susceptible children.  But what I love about this is that it is the death knell of the fairytale of a static rate, or near static rate of autism, just having the genes or the exposure isn’t enough; instead, the interaction of alleles and timed exposure ‘could drive the system toward a pathophysiolical threshold that neither genetic risk nor environmental factors could produce individually’.  I think there are some more findings coming from this group soon that might be exciting, or terrifying, depending on how you see it.  (or both).  Coolness factor: 99.   

So what have we learned and just how cool is it?

1)      The MET receptor enables some types of cellular signaling that have relevance to the autism community including synapse formation, immune modulation, and gastro intestinal function.  The ligand, or trigger of the MET receptor is HGF.

2)      Certain alleles of the MET gene that result in decreased expression are more common in children with autism than people without autism.

3)      Consistent with findings of increased prevalence of MET alleles, MET protein expression was found to be decreased in brain tissue from people with autism.  Other, related proteins, HGF, PLAUR, and SERPINE were also found to be disturbed.

4)      Following up on the differential findings of SERPINE and PLAUR, genetic studies found gene to gene interactions between the MET allele and alleles involved with production of SERPINE and PLAUR. Some of the proteins in question are known to be particularly vulnerable to environmental interference.

5)      Animal models tell us that MET is heavily expressed in many areas of the mammalian brain during prenatal and postnatal development, and we gain insight into the spatial and temporal expression of MET during the intricate dance of brain formation.

6)      Two studies add evidence that the one function of decreased MET expression, GI disturbances, are indeed found with greater consistency within children with autism and the MET allele.  This should be a relatively unsurprising finding considering what we know about MET and children with autism.

7)      Finally, a portrait of genetic / environmental interactions capable of disturbing physiology and behavior in ways consistent with findings in autism is rendered using an agent that is the product of the automobile age and already associated with decreased cognitive skills for groups with the highest gestational exposure.

It should be noted that this is just a slice of the MET papers out there in the autism realm; they all shared one or more authors, I picked them because they seem to show a nice progression of knowledge, and incremental approach towards learning more.   There is a lof more to learn, in particular, I think that the immune modulating effects of reduced expression would be an interesting subject, but one that will have to wait for another posting. 

–  pD


Hello friends –

There’s been something at the back of my mind for a while now regarding the potential for environmental influences to participate in autism, and indeed, a true rise in the number of children that have developmental problems that I’ve been struggling with articulating elegantly.  The right course came to me while reading threads where the recent autism risk as proximity to highways paper was discussed.   I’m actually not too big on the paper, it is very preliminary, uses some terms that are kind of confusing, and at very best, should be used as a guide for more targeted studies.  For anyone who didn’t see it when it came out, essentially it reported a small increase of risk of having a baby with autism as the pregnant mother lived closer to some types of highways. 

What I liked about this study is that at the core, there was a twinge of a biologically plausible mechanism, specifically, exposure to pollutants during development and consequent interference with neural development.  Examples given in the text including possible endocrine disrupting effects of some types of automotive exhaust, and studies showing altered glutamate expression and associated plasticity defects resulting from pollutants. 


What I didn’t like about the study is that it didn’t include any biomarkers and seemed relatively soft on the definitional terms.  It was essentially a GIS placement and association lookup; lots of data and easy to find phantoms.  A methodologically similar study by Bearman was released a few months previously; purporting to assign a very specific percentage of autism increase (16%) to the spatial proximity of other parents with children with autism, with the idea being that those chatty parents convinced their close neighbors to get their child diagnosed, while those people who more than 500 meters from a child with autism, and therefore don’t talk to as many people, failed to get their child diagnosed.  I came down pretty hard on Bearman and don’t see much difference to apply less skepticism here.  I will note, however, with no small amount of amusement, that when Bearman was discussed, no one seemed too concerned about the lack of control for urbanicity in the ‘skeptical’ realm.  Big surprise.   

The skeptics took the freeway paper apart, or in some instances, took apart a reporter or blogger who was spinning the findings as stronger than they were.  I was more or less in agreement with the skeptics ideas on this one; this paper certainly was not sufficiently strong to make any conclusive statements and as usual, some headlines got it way wrong. 

 On the other hand, according to my underlying principles of subtle change still being meaningful, the humbling complexity of poking around with systems like embryonic development, and the difficult to overstate gulf between what we know and what we think we know about the effects of our reckless introduction of a galaxy of sythentic chemicals into the environment our infants are born into, this study fit in pretty nicely; at the very least as a reason to perform bioinformatic analysis of pregnant women to test for biomarkers of exhaust exposure and cognitive outcomes a few years down the ‘road’.   

It didn’t take long before the gross over simplifications started rolling in though; i.e., ‘If this study is valid, we should have seen the rise in autism when the Interstate program was initiated in the 1950’s!’  [cue laugh track], or ‘I guess I have genes that made me live near an Interstate’.  [cue whoot whoot track] It occurred to me that the Interstate jokes are a good illustration of what is largely wrong with nearly every single discussion on environmental participation you stumble into on the Internet.  On one hand, the notion that unless an environmental study has sufficient power to prove a causal relationship for autism, or indeed, can be shown to be unable to account for all autism cases, it is safe to be mocked, or for the more academically minded, accused of being the result of data dredging.  Similarly, anything showing a glimmer of plausibility that isn’t a genetic finding can lends itself towards showing how worthless the genetic angle is.  These are useful cards to play if your goal is to bash environmental causation theories (and thereby, vaccination causation theories), or if your goal is to bash genetic theories; but ultimately are wastes of time if we want to understand a condition with the murky history and multifaceted manifestations of autism.   The crux of what really bothered me about both sides of the Internet joke is that they each ignore meaningful information that can be offered from the other side.  It is worse than dumb, it is wasteful.

 Stepping away from the environmental end for a moment, I think it is safe to say that everyone is beginning to realize that the hunt for high impact genetic changes that can explain more than a tiny fraction of our autism cases is an abject failure.  While there are some genetic changes, like Fragile X, that confer extremely high risk of autism, the absolute number of people with such changes is relatively simple to determine, and they comprise a vanishingly small subset of the children with autism.  What we do seem to be finding is that there are lots of genetic changes that confer a small risk of having autism, the so called, low penetrance genetic changes.  The idea here is that if you have many, (maybe as many as a dozen or more) low penetrance genes, the cumulative effects build up until a physiological end point is reached wherein autistic behaviors manifest.  I actually like the idea behind low penetrance genes a lot; it makes a lot of our finings of genetics make sense, and I absolutely believe in a strong genetic participation in autism.   

Remember, at the end of the day, genes are nothing more than blueprints for building proteins.  Most genetic alterations don’t involve complete additions, or removals, of proteins, but rather, creation of a little less, or a little more of a protein, or perhaps, creation of proteins that are just a tiny bit different than ‘normal’, sort of like autism itself.   While the environment these proteins enter, or are regulated into entering, starts influencing the eventual biological outcome in the most immediate sense imaginable, the end points of genetics, these proteins and their precise structures are indisputably important in what is happening in everything our bodies do; including, in some instances, have autism. 

Consider the tightly orchestrated formation of the microscopic chasms between neurons, the process of synaptogenesis.  Dozens (or hundreds) of chemicals dance together in order to form the structures in our brains that exchange chemical messengers, neurotransmitters, that literally form the foundation of neuron to neuron communication, and thus, cognition; the physical constructs of thought.  It is a biological cauldron that we are just beginning to comprehend, the mind formingly intricate, time dependent interplay of a chemical deck of cards orders of magnitude more complicated than sequencing the genome. 

The evidence for altered synapses, and modified synaptic function in autism, and most (all?) other developmental disorders is impossible for an intellectually honest observer to deny.  Some of the most commonly found genetic alterations in people with autism involve genes known to participate in the formation, maintenance, or functioning of synapses.  For example, neurexin , shank, and neuroligin, are some well known, or at least, well reported reported genes intimately attached to synapse function also found associated with autism, and our list should also include calcium expression and  adhesion genes (and many, many others).  Each of these genes or processes contribute to the synapse in subtle, but different ways, at different times, and yet we can see that interferences anywhere down the functional class of chemicals is associated with autism.  Yet, very few people, (I’ve read of none), have been found to have a neurixin allele, a shank allele, and a neruoligin mutation.  And there are some people who have the same mutations, but do not exhibit autistic behavior.  There are also a great many people that have no known mutations in any of these genes, and still, receive an autism diagnosis.  What does this tell us?

It should tell us that while there are lots of genetic ways that synapse function can be altered in such a way that autistic behaviors bubble up to the diagnosis endpoint, but more importantly, the critical question need not necessarily revolve around what genes you have, but rather, is synapse function manipulated?  Furthermore, we should be able to conclude that simply having a single modifier (i.e., one shank mutation) go wrong isn’t a guarantee of an autism diagnosis, and thus; the participation of individual mutations is real, but small.  [I would also argue that it is likely that there are a great number of as of yet, undetected genetic misprints that contribute in the same real, but subtle ways.]

Another more accessible example of a low penetrance gene is the MET gene, which produces a protein known to interact with a lot of important processes involved in autism, including brain formation, immune system functioning, and intestinal repair.  There have been a lot of high quality studies on the MET mutations in the past few years including those that report higher incidences of MET mutations in children with autism and gastrointestinal problems, higher findings of MET alleles in autism, association to communication phenotypes and MET expression, replication of above studies, evidence of interaction with other genes known to be associated with autism, decreased expression in post mortem brain tissue, and animal studies showing differential, time dependent expression of MET.  (and many, many others).   

The kicker towards this discussion, howeever, is that the changes to the MET gene are really, very, very common.  Nearly one half of everyone has the low MET production gene, but even still, many more people with autism have it.  So, while it is clearly implicated, other changes are obviously necessary for that particular genetic change to result in autism.  What we are learning about the systems affected by MET, or lots of the genes implicated in autism, is that very subtle changes towards critical processes are sufficient to modify the course of development.  Somewhat counter intuitively, I would argue that the implication of this is compelling evidence (or terrifying news) for those of us with worries about the possibility of an environmentally driven increase in the number of people with an autism diagnosis; indeed, it argues that just like genetics, we must admit the reality that if genes can be low penetrance, so too, then, can environmental impacts.   

For example, back to brain formation.  We know that the neurexin proteins participate in forming our synapses.  But we have evidence that hypo

thyroidism can lead to structural changes during development, and we also know that there is increasing evidence that endocrine disruptors can interferre with thyroid metabolism, or for that matter, a wide range of findings on endocrine disruptors and cognitive function.   Or if we look to pesticides, we have evidence that developmental exposure to diazonon can modify neurotransmitter function, with similar findings are available for other classes of pesticides.  Similarly with heavy metals.

The skeptics would claim with some legitimacy that there are significant dose dependency problems to be addressed before we should start pointing to every experimental slice of evidence of potential harm and claiming that the sky is falling.  But.  What if, in fact, we need only perturb the process of brain development a little bit, and with a little help from other, low penetrance genes or other exposures, developmental trajectories begin to alter?  This would seem to be precisely what we are learning from the genetic angle; it isn’t one big thing incorrectly designed, it is lots of small things.  And while our genetic code has, for the most part, remained stable; our environment today is vastly overpopulated with chemicals capable of minor, but real, effects when compared to yesteryears past.

The search for a single environmental impact with the ability to explain a significant portion of autism diagnosis is as futile as the hunt based on genetics.  This makes for a far messier landscape, but also one that fits my terrifying, over arching principle of the Fairytale of a static (or near static) rate of autism, that our uncontrolled experiment of introducing synthetic chemicals into our environment coupled with widespread social changes with real physiological impacts, a set of experiments absolutely unprecedented in the history of living things on planet Earth, that changes to our offspring are unavoidable.  To suggest otherwise, strikes me as either the height of arrogance, or the depths of ignorance. 

Going back to the freeway study for a minute, I ran into a paper while writing this piece that involves pollutants, interaction with the MET gene, gene x environment interactions, and low penetrance impacts that I think has salience towards this discussion.

 Prenatal polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure leads to behavioral deficits and downregulation of receptor tyrosine kinase, MET. 

Here is the abstract:


Gene by environment interactions (G × E) are thought to underlie neurodevelopmental disorder, etiology, neurodegenerative disorders, including the multiple forms of autism spectrum disorder. However, there is limited biological information, indicating an interaction between specific genes and environmental components. The present study focuses on a major component of airborne pollutants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as benzo(a)pyrene [B(a)P], which negatively impacts cognitive development in children who have been exposed in utero. In our study, prenatal exposure of Cpr(lox/lox) timed-pregnant dams to B(a)P (0, 150, 300, and 600 μg/kg body weight via oral gavage) on embryonic day (E14-E17) consistent with our susceptibility-exposure paradigm was combined with the analysis of a replicated autism risk gene, the receptor tyrosine kinase, Met. The results demonstrate a dose-dependent increase in B(a)P metabolite generation in B(a)P-exposed Cpr(lox/lox) offspring. Additionally, a sustained persistence of hydroxy metabolites during the onset of synapse formation was noted, corresponding to the peak of Met expression. Prenatal B(a)P exposure also downregulated Met RNA and protein levels and dysregulated normal temporal patterns of expression during synaptogenesis (!). Consistent with these data, transcriptional cell-based assays demonstrated that B(a)P exposure directly reduces human MET promoter activity. Furthermore, a functional readout of in utero B(a)P exposure showed a robust reduction in novel object discrimination in B(a)P-exposed Cpr(lox/lox) offspring. These results confirm the notion that common pollutants, such as the PAH B(a)P, can have a direct negative impact on the regulated developmental expression of an autism risk gene with associated negative behavioral learning and memory outcomes.


(my emphasis) 

I have to say, finding this paper was a bit of tragic humor for me; it was published in December 2010, with zero fanfare from the press, as opposed to the confounder heavy, Residential Proximity to Freeways and Autism in the CHARGE study, study, which had a thousand similar articles in Google News.  But here we find a superb example of what gets bandied around a lot when in quick passing but rarely with any meat behind the discussion; a real life, experimentally sound version of a gene environment interaction that integrates biologically plausible mechanisms that is able to describe what is observed physiologically in autism with dose responses.  Beautiful.  But, it gets even better.  It just so happens, the classifications of agents in use in this study, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are generated, in some instances, by car exhaust.  In fact, in Detection of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure from automobile exhaust fumes using urinary 1-hydroxypyrene level as an index, the authors conclude in part that “Automobile exhaust fume exposed subjects have a higher risk to be exposed to PAHs than the non-exposed subjects”.   Go figure.

Whatever the problems with the freeway CHARGE study, they pale in comparison to the problems that the notion that because we didn’t observe increases in autism when the Interstate system was constructed, the findings must be spurious.  Similarly, genetic predisposition is an indisputable fact; and knowing which genes are implicated in autism can help us intelligently target environmental factors that might be changing our infants.   

– pD




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