passionless Droning about autism

Archive for the ‘Early Life Immune Activation’ Category

Hello friends –

One of the more beautiful and terrifying concepts I’ve come across in the last year or so is the idea of ‘developmental programming’, or sometimes fetal programming, or as I imagine it will eventually be recognized, the realization of subtle change is still change, and subtle change during critical timeframes can amplify into meaningful outcomes.  The underlying hypothesis is that environmental influences during early life, gestation, infancy, or even childhood, have the capacity to permanently influence physiological and behavioral state into adulthood.  The available evidence implicates the potential for developmental programming to be involved with an assortment of conditions that on the whole, you’d rather not have than have, including the spectrum sized set of disorders grouped as ‘metabolic syndrome’ that incorporates several risk factors for cardiovascular disorders, obesity, type II diabetes.  There is also less pronounced evidence for some autoimmune disorders, and perhaps, autism. 

Here is the most concise explanation of developmental programming I’ve seen so far, from Developmental Programming of Energy Balance and Its Hypothalamic Regulation

The concepts of nutritional programming, fetal programming, fetal origins of adult disease, developmental origins of health and disease, developmental induction, and developmental programming were all conceived to explain the same phenomenon: a detrimental environment during a critical period of development has persistent effects, whereas the same environmental stimulus outside that critical period induces only reversible changes.

I am absolutely in love with the importance of time dependent effects, a sort of combo pack of why the dose doesn’t always make the poison, and the importance of understanding subtle interactions in developing systems. 

The area of developmental programming that has a ton of research in the human field and animal models is the link between metabolic syndrome and a differently structured uterine and/or early postnatal environment.  A nice review from 2007, Developmental programming of obesity in mammals (full paper) has this:

Converging lines of evidence from epidemiological studies and animal models now indicate that the origins of obesity and related metabolic disorders lie not only in the interaction between genes and traditional adult risk factors, such as unbalanced diet and physical inactivity, but also in the interplay between genes and the embryonic, fetal and early postnatal environment. Whilst studies in man initially focused on the relationship between low birth weight and risk of adult obesity and metabolic syndrome, evidence is also growing to suggest that increased birth weight and/or adiposity at birth can also lead to increased risk for childhood and adult obesity. Hence, there appears to be increased risk of obesity at both ends of the birth weight spectrum.


Childhood and adult obesity are amongst the cardiovascular risk factors now considered to be ‘programmed’ by early life and, perhaps counter-intuitively, babies subjected either to early life nutritional deprivation or to an early environment over-rich in nutrients appear to be at risk. Supportive evidence includes the observation of a ‘U-shaped’ curve which relates birthweight to risk of adult obesity (Curhan et al. 1996).

[Check out that example of a hormetic dose curveTotally sweet!]

The list of papers supporting a link between abnormal gestational or birth parameters and subsequent obesity in the offspring is very, very voluminous.   The satellite level high view of the research starts with Dutch mothers during a time of famine, and the observations that these children were much more likely to be obese at nineteen in Obesity in young men after famine exposure in utero and early infancy.  Later, infants in England were found to have birth weight positively correspond to adult weight in Birth weight, weight at 1 y of age, and body composition in older men: findings from the Hertfordshire Cohort Study (full paper).  A study with twin pairs, Birth weight and body composition in young women: a prospective twin study  had similar findings, but with the additional coolness factor of being able to detect differences between genetically identical twins who happened to be born at different weights.  There are studies on infants that are born light but then ‘catch up’are consistently more likely to be obese, a review of which can be found in Rapid infancy weight gain and subsequent obesity: systematic reviews and hopeful suggestions.  Startlingly, Weight Gain in the First Week of Life and Overweight in Adulthood observed that formula fed babies who gained considerable weight during the first eight days after birth were more likely to be obese as adults, similar to other findings implicating formula fed babies with adult obesity.

Therearealsoconservativelya bazillionanimalmodelsthattellusthatthestudiesin humans are accurate.

Part of me hates the deterministic nature of these findings, it’s really just an extension of the fatalism of genetic assignment, but on the other hand, the data is the data.  I must admit, I am in love with the underlying evolutionary cleverness of the thrifty phenotype end of the U curve on display; a fetus or neonate that is deprived of nutrients, or perhaps, some types of nutrients, programs itself for an environment in which food is scarce, handling calories differently at a very fine grained metabolic level.  From a survival standpoint this modification is most definitely the smart move; all inbound indicators are signaling to the fetus that calorie acquisition is going to be tough on the outside, and as a result, the physiology is tweaked so that baby is ready to make the absolute most of any available nutrients.  If that child, however, is raised in a world with plentiful calories, if not always, beneficial calories, they tend to store fat more readily than a baby/child/adult that did not receive the same messages in utero.  Neat.

Like lots of things I seem to be running into, our observations of what is happening seem to be more advanced than our understanding of how it is happening.  The ideas of developmental programming have been around for a while, but we are still very much in the learning phase regarding mechanism of action, a very thorough review that I ran into can be found here:  Mechanisms of developmental programming of the metabolic syndrome and related disorders.   (full paper). 

Another example of programming a bit closer to home to the autism world has been in the news lately, namely the replication of findings that children who grow up around farm animals, or in some cases, pets, are less likely to suffer from allergies and /or asthma than children who grow up without that exposure.  These findings are also very robust, and appear to implicate similar critical developmental timeframes including the gestational environment, infancy, and toddlerhood. 

Here is an example of the kind of thing in this area,  Farming environment and prevalence of atopy at age 31: prospective birth cohort study in Finland

Cross-sectional studies have shown an association between the farming environment and a decreased risk of atopic sensitization, mainly related to contact with farm animals in the childhood. Objective Investigate the association of a farming environment, especially farm animal contact, during infancy, with atopic sensitization and allergic diseases at the age of 31. Methods In a prospective birth cohort study, 5509 subjects born in northern Finland in 1966 were followed up at the age of 31. Prenatal exposure to the farming environment was documented before or at birth. At age 31, information on health status and childhood exposure to pets was collected by a questionnaire and skin prick tests were performed. Results Being born to a family having farm animals decreased the risk of atopic sensitization [odds ratio (OR) 0.67; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.56-0.80], atopic eczema ever (OR 0.77; 95% CI 0.66-0.91), doctor-diagnosed asthma ever (OR 0.74; 95% CI 0.55-1.00), allergic rhinitis at age 31 (OR 0.87; 95% CI 0.73-1.03) and allergic conjunctivitis (OR 0.86; 95% CI 0.72-1.02) at age 31. There was a suggestion that the reduced risk of allergic sensitization was particularly evident among the subjects whose mothers worked with farm animals during pregnancy, and that the reduced risk of the above diseases by farm animal exposure was largely explained by the reduced risk of atopy. Having cats and dogs in childhood revealed similar associations as farm animals with atopic sensitization. Conclusion and Clinical Relevance Contact with farm animals in early childhood reduces the risk of atopic sensitization, doctor-diagnosed asthma and allergic diseases at age 31.

That is one hell of a long running study and the findings are consistent with a wealth of similar studies across populations, including Exposure to environmental microorganisms and childhood asthma, and Effect of animal contact and microbial exposures on the prevalence of atopy and asthma in urban vs rural children in India.  These findings are part and parcel with the Hygiene Hypothesis, the idea that a relative reduction in ‘training’ of the immune system can lead to disturbances in normal immune system development and consequent development of autoimmune disorders.   (Here’s a nice review of the evidentiary backing for the Hygiene Hypothesis) From a clinical viewpoint, there are reasons to suspect this is a biologically plausible pathway; in Environmental exposure to endotoxin and its relation to asthma in school-age children the researchers reported an inverse relationship between the amount of endotoxin (i.e., a bacterial fingerprint that is recognized by the immune system) and the immune  response, stating, “Cytokine production by leukocytes (production of tumor necrosis factor alpha, interferon-gamma, interleukin-10, and interleukin-12) was inversely related to the endotoxin level in the bedding, indicating a marked down-regulation of immune responses in exposed children.”  We can also see immunomodulatory effects of farm or rural living in the cytokine profiles of breast milk between two populations, as reported in Immune regulatory cytokines in the milk of lactating women from farming and urban environments, which found much higher concentrations of TGF-Beta1, a critical immune modulator, in breastmilk and collustrum of ‘farm mothers’.  The concentration of TGF-Beta1 in breastmilk had already been implicated in infant development of atopic disease in Transforming growth factor-beta in breast milk: a potential regulator of atopic disease at an early age

The evidence supporting developmental programming in these instances is very problematic to overcome, clearly there are mechanisms by which the events of very early life can cause persistent changes to physiology into adulthood; be they changes ‘designed’ to be adaptive, or disturbed trajectories of usually tightly regulated systems that find inappropriate targets in an environment different than what our ancestors evolved in.  I’d note that none of what is above invalidates any findings of genetic involvement with cardiovascular problems, obesity, or asthma, but it should serve as a portrait of how genetic recipes are only part of the process. 

So, what about autism?  This is, admittedly, where things get a bit more speculative, there isn’t the same type of epidemiological evidence in the autism arena as what we see above.  Part of this discrepancy is an artifact of the fuzzy nature of autism, a bazillion different conditions each with their own personalized manifestation, a much more daunting set of variables to detangle compared with measuring BMI, triglyceride levels or asthma.  Those caveats in place, there is still room to discuss some potential examples wherein early life experiences might be participating in ‘programming’ some of what we see in autism. 

A nice review paper that speaks directly towards a developmental programming model that involves autism is Early life programming and neurodevelopmental disorders that includes as an author, Tom Insel, head of the National Institute of Mental Health, and generally, one of the good guys.   This is part of the abstract.

Although the hypothesized mechanisms have evolved, a central notion remains: early life is a period of unique sensitivity during which experience confers enduring effects. The mechanisms for these effects remain almost as much a mystery today as they were a century ago (Insel and Cuthbert 2009). Recent studies suggest that maternal diet can program offspring growth and metabolic pathways, altering lifelong susceptibility to diabetes and obesity. If maternal psychosocial experience has similar programming effects on the developing offspring, one might expect a comparable contribution to neurodevelopmental disorders, including affective disorders, schizophrenia, autism and eating disorders. Due to their early onset, prevalence and chronicity, some of these disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia, are among the highest causes of disability worldwide (World Health Organization, 2002). Consideration of the early life programming and transcriptional regulation in adult exposures supports a critical need to understand epigenetic mechanisms as a critical determinant in disease predisposition.


A concise explanation of the concept of developmental programming and the need for more finely detailed understandings of the likely epigenetic underpinnings.  Also included is a discussion of things like maternal stress during gestation, childhood environmental enrichment (or more specifically, ‘de-enriched’ or otherwise, terrible situations), and prenatal infection models.  Nice.  

What about specifics for the autism arena?  One environmental event that most everyone agrees can increase risk of an autism diagnosis is an immune challenge in the gestational period.  The animal models are robust and have been replicatedacross laboratories and epidemiological data supports an association.  A lot of groups have been studying the effects of maternal immune activation in animal models the past few years, what we can see are some striking parallel veins to what is observed in autism that involve the concept of developmental programming. 

One paper, with a title I love, is  Neonatal programming of innate immune function.  Here is a snipet of the abstract from the first paper:

There is now much evidence to suggest that perinatal challenges to an animal’s immune system will result in changes in adult rat behavior, physiology, and molecular pathways following a single inflammatory event during development caused by the bacterial endotoxin lipopolysaccharide (LPS). In particular, it is now apparent that neonatal LPS administration can influence the adult neuroimmune response to a second LPS challenge through hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis modifications, some of which are caused by alterations in peripheral prostaglandin synthesis. These pronounced changes are accompanied by a variety of alterations in a number of disparate aspects of endocrine physiology, with significant implications for the health and well-being of the adult animal.

Another very cool, and very dense, paper with a salient title and content by the same group is  Early Life Activation of Toll-Like Receptor 4 Reprograms Neural Anti-Inflammatory Pathways (full paper) which reports that a single early life immune challenge results in persistently altered response to immune stimulants into adulthood, with differential responses in the CNS compared to the periphery.  Especially interesting in this paper is that the researchers have dug down a layer into the biochemical changes affected by early life immune challenge and found that alterations to HPA-Axis metabolites are responsible for the changes. 

Tinkering around with the HPA-Axis, an entangled neuroendicrine system that touches on stress response, immune function, mood, and more can have a lot of disparate effects.  It turns out, there is evidence that early life immune challenges can also modify behaviors in a way consistent with altered stress responses.

For example, the very recently published Peripheral immune challenge with viral mimic during early postnatal period robustly enhances anxiety-like behavior in young adult rats has a short, but to the point abstract:

Inflammatory factors associated with immune challenge during early brain development are now firmly implicated in the etiologies of schizophrenia, autism and mood disorders later in life. In rodent models, maternal injections of inflammagens have been used to induce behavioral, anatomical and biochemical changes in offspring that are congruent with those found in human diseases. Here, we studied whether inflammatory challenge during the early postnatal period can also elicit behavioral alterations in adults. At postnatal day 14, rats were intraperitoneally injected with a viral mimic, polyinosinic:polycytidylic acid (PIC). Two months later, these rats displayed remarkably robust and consistent anxiety-like behaviors as evaluated by the open field/defensive-withdrawal test. These results demonstrate that the window of vulnerability to inflammatory challenge in rodents extends into the postnatal period and offers a means to study the early sequelae of events surrounding immune challenge to the developing brain.

The methodology is very similar to what we see in a lot of animal models of early life immune activation, convince a young animals immune system that they are under microbial attack by mimicking either bacterial or viral invaders, and then measure behaviors, or physiology, later in life. This study could be seen as a complement to a much earlier (2005) paper, Early life immune challenge–effects on behavioural indices of adult rat fear and anxiety, which used a different immune stimulant (bacterial fingerprint/LPS versus viral fingerprint/Poly:IC), but which found generally consistent results.

There are more, for example, Early-Life Programming of Later-Life Brain and Behavior: A Critical Role for the Immune System (full paper), which reviews animal study evidence that early life immune challenges can have lifelong effects.  Here is part of the Introduction:

Thus, the purpose of this review is to: (1) summarize the evidence that infections occurring during the perinatal period can produce effects on brain and subsequent behavior that endure throughout an organism’s life span, and (2) discuss the potential role of cytokines and glia in these long-term changes. Cytokines are produced within the brain during normal brain development, but are expressed at much higher levels during the course of an immune response. In contrast to overt neural damage, we present data indicating that increased cytokine exposure during key periods of brain development may also act as a “vulnerability” factor for later-life pathology, by sensitizing the underlying neural substrates and altering the way that the brain responds to a subsequent immune challenge in adulthood. In turn, this altered immune response has significant and enduring consequences for behavior, including social, cognitive, and affective abilities. We discuss the evidence that one mechanism responsible for enduring cytokine changes is chronic activation of brain microglia, the primary immunocompetent cells of the CNS.

Check that out!  We have several papers showing, indeed, a ‘chronic activation of brain microglia’ in the autism population; one way, it seems, to achieve this, is ‘increased cytokine exposure during key periods of brain development’.  (Ouch!) 

Is developmental programming the mechanism by which gestational immune activation raises the risk of autism?  I don’t think we can answer that question with any authority yet, but the logical jumps to arrive at that conclusion are small, and  are supported by a great deal of evidence.  No doubt, we’ll be learning more about this in the years to come.

Ultimately, I think what all of this means is that, as usual, there is another layer of complexity thrown into the mix.  As far as autism goes, it seems likely that at least some of our children are manifesting behaviors consistent with autism as a result of things that happened to them very, very early in their life.  Figuring out if this is happening, how it is happening, and to which individuals, is a daunting, very difficult task; but at least we are approaching a level of knowledge to allow for such an endeavor.

This posting focused on the bad stuff, but the inverse is just as meaningful, having a ‘normal’ gestational period as far as nutrients go, programs you towards a more healthy weight, and being born to a mother exposed to a variety of microbial agents, as the overwhelming majority of mothers were for most of human existence, programs you away from asthma.  But from a broader standpoint, from a ‘every human on the planet’ view, I think we must begin to recognize that everyone is being programmed, in some ways for good, in others, for not so good.  Curiosity and thoughtful analysis is our way to illuminate the beautiful and dispassionate gears that propel the machinations of nature; developmental programming is one of the cogs in the natural world, hopefully, one day, we will acquire the wisdom to refine the program for our benefit, but in the meantime, it is still exciting to witness the discovery of the inner workings.


Hello friends –

The mitochondria discussion in the autism community reminds me a lot about the political discussion in the United States; I know it is important, but it is just so hard for me to care enough to get involved; it mandates walking the plank into an environment dripping in hypocrisy, where highly complicated problems are reduced to black and white meme friendly soundbytes, and discussions that seem a lot more like billboards on different sides of the road than people wanting to discuss anything.   It started with the case of Hannah Poling, the little girl who experienced a dramatic and sudden developmental regression following her vaccinations at age 18 months, a case wherein the federal government conceded that vaccines through likely interaction with a pre-existing defect in mitochondrial function were likely the cause of her developmental trajectory and ‘autism like features’. 

On some parts of the Internet, you’d think that every single child with an autism diagnosis experienced a drastic, overnight regression in development that Hannah Poling did; despite abundant, clear as the day common sense evidence that the onset of autism is gradual in the overwhelming majority of instances. For the most part, I don’t think it was a spin job.  I just don’t think they get it.  Although, I must admit, I do believe that there are a very small, but real, minority of parents who have witnessed similar things with their children.  Hannah Poling is not unique. 

On the other hand, lots of other places you could find people whose online existence is part and parcel with the notion that our real autism rates are static, that the inclusion of less severe children was burgeoning our observed rates of increases, and yet, found the intellectual dishonesty to question if Hannah Poling had autism or not, as if suddenly, in this one particular instance, a diagnostic report of having ‘features of autism’ as opposed to ‘autism’ was meaningful. As if that fucking mattered.  

On the one side there is the failure to recognize any semblance of nuance, of complexity, and on the other, a startling hypocrisy and lack of curiosity.  

A few weeks ago (maybe a few months ago, by the time I finally get this post published, at my rate), a paper came out that reported, among other things, children with autism were more likely to have mitochondrial dysfunction, mtDNA overreplication, and mtDNA deletions than typically developing children.  That paper, of course, is Mitochondrial Disorder In Autism, a new winner in the field of simple to understand, straightforward titles.  The good news is that Mitochondrial Disorder In Autism is another portrait of beautiful and humbling complexity with something to offer an open mind.  Maddeningly, my real world email address received an embargo copy of the paper, which is somehow protected from copy paste operations, meaning most parts from that paper here will be manually transcribed, or more likely, paraphrased.

This is a cool paper, it sheds light on the possible participation of a widely observed phenomena in autism, increased oxidative stress, gives us additional evidence that the broader incidence of mitochondrial dysfunction is significantly very higher in the autism population, and an possible illustration of a feedback loop.

Very briefly paraphrased (damn you, embargo copy!), the authors used samples of peripheral cells of the immune system, lymphocytes, to test for mitochondrial dysfunction.  This is a big step, it allowed the researchers to bypass the traditional method of muscle biopsy, which is both invasive and painful.  It is reminiscent of using lymphoblastoid cells as proxies for neural cells in genetic expressions studies; the type of small, incremental data that can get lost in the headline, but has potentially broad applications.

In Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism, according to the authors, lymphocytes were considered sufficient surrogates because they are power hungry and derive a significant portion of their energy needs from oxidative phosphorylation; i.e, mitochondrial function.   It was small study, ten children with autism and ten controls; I’m not clear why such a small sample was used, perhaps the laboratory time and/or dollar requirements involved with detecting mitochondrial dysfunction, even in peripheral cells, mandated that such small numbers be used.  (?)   Perhaps funding could not be obtained for a larger study without some preliminary results, and as is mentioned several times in the text, these findings should be replicated if and when possible. 

Two types of changes to mtDNA were evaluated for, the ratio of the total number of mtDNA to nuclear DNA (i.e., ‘normal DNA’), and the presence of deletions of parts of mtDNA. These changes are a lot different than what we normally think of in genetic studies, and here’s my short story (barely longer than my understanding) of how.  

Each mitochondria has a variable number of mtDNA copies, usually estimated at between 2 and 10.  The understanding on what a relatively higher, or lower number of copies of mtDNA means for an organism is ongoing and nascent; for example, findings of associations with lower mtDNA levels in elderly women and cognitive decline, or finding that mtDNA copy number associate positively with fertility, both of which were published in 2010 (there are, conservatively, a brazillion other studies with a broad range of topics).  Highly salient for our purposes, however, are findings cited by this article, Oxidative Stress-related Alteration of the Copy Number of Mitochondrial DNA in Human Leukocytes, which reports that cells experiencing oxidative stress had increased number of mtDNA copies.  In Mitochonddrial Dysfunction in Autism the authors report an increase in the number of mtDNA copies in the autism group. 

Secondarily, the authors also looked for differences in mtDNA structure, but again in this instance, not in the way that we frequently think about genetic studies; they were not looking for an A replaced G mutation that exists in every gene, in every cell, in the individual, but rather, different structural components that were indicative of damage within the copies of mtDNA.  Thus, it wasn’t so much a case of a blueprint gone wrong, as much of case by case differences in mtDNA; potentially the result of exposure to reactive oxygen species during replication. 

Changes in both copy number of mtDNA (increased), and structure (mostly deletions) were observed in the autism group. 

Up and above changes to mtDNA, several biomarkers of direct and indirect mitochondrial dysfunction were measured, including lactacte to pyruvate ratios, (which have been observed abnormal previously in autism and speculated to be resultant from mitochondrial problems), mitochondrial consumption of oxygen, and hydrogen peroxide production, a known signal for some types of mitochondrial dysfunction.  Several of the biomarker findings were indicative of problems in mitochondrial function in the autism group, including impaired oxygen consumption, increased hydrogen peroxide production, and as noted by other researchers, higher pyruvate levels, with a consequent decreased lactate to pyruvate ratio compared to controls. 

These findings were described by the authors like this:

Thus, lymphocytic mitochondria in autism not only had a lower oxidative phosphorylation capacity, but also contributed to the overall increased cellular oxidative stress.

In plainer English, not only was the ability to produce energy reduced, but the propensity to create damaging byproducts, i.e., oxidative stress, i.e., ROS was increased.  Talk about a double whammy!  There have been a lot of studies of increased oxidative stress in the autism population, one of the first was Oxidative stress in autism: increased lipid peroxidation and reduced serum levels of ceruloplasmin and transferrin–the antioxidant proteins, with other titles including, Metabolic biomarkers of increased oxidative stress and impaired methylation capacity in children with autism, Oxidative stress in autism, Brain Region-Specific Changes in Oxidative Stress and Neurotrophin Levels in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and many, many others.  Could mitochondrial dysfunction be the cause of increased oxidative stress in autism?  Could oxidative stress by the cause of mitochondrial dysfunction in autism?  Could both be occurring?

Oxidative stress deserves a free standing post (or a few), but at a high level refers to the creation of damaging particles, called reactive oxygen species by our bodies during the course of many biological operations; including generating energy (i.e., the function of mitochondria).  The graceful management of these particles is essential for normal functioning; too little containment and there can be damage to cellular structures like cell membranes, or DNA.  You can measure these types of damage, and a wide swath of studies in the autism realm have found that on average, children with autism exhibit a state of increased oxidative stress when compared to children without that diagnosis.  A great variety of conditions other than autism, but which you’d still generally rather not have, are also characterized by increased oxidative stress, as are things that you can’t really help having, like getting old. 

(It should be noted, however, that in an illustration of humbling complexity, we are now learning that containing free radicals by all means possible may also not necessarily be a good idea; our bodies utilize these chemicals as signals for a variety of things that aren’t immediately obvious.  For example, there is preliminary evidence that too much antioxidants can cancel out, the benefits of exercise; our bodies were using the effects of exercise as a signal to build more muscle, likewise, we have evidence that oxidative stress plays a part in apotosis, or programmed cell death, and interfering with that may not be a good idea; in fact, it could, participate in carcinogenisis.  There is no free lunch.)

Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism speculates that oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction could be linked, either by increased oxidative stress leading to problems in mtDNA replication (i.e., the observed mtDNA problems are a result of aggressive attempts at repair, repair to damage induced by the presence of reactive species), or by deficiencies in the ability to remove ROS; i.e., decreased glutathione levels as observed by James.   This really speaks towards the possibility of a feedback loop, something leads to an increase in oxidative stress that cannot be successfully managed, which causes mitochondrial damage, which leads to problems in mtDNA replication, which in turn, leads to dysfunction, and increased oxidative stress.  Again, from the paper:

Differences in mtDNA parameters between control children and those with autism could stem from either higher oxidative stress or inadequate removal of these harmful species. The increased reactive oxygen species production observed in this exploratory study is consistent with the higher ratio of oxidized NADH to reduced glutathione in lymphoblastoid cells and mitochondria from children with ASD, supporting the concept that these cells from children with autism present higher oxidative stress.  Increased reactive oxygen species production induced by mitochondrial dysfunction could elicit chronic oxidative stress that enhances mtDNA replication and possibly mtDNA repair.

Collectively, these results suggest that cumulative damage and oxidative stress over time may (through reduced capacity to generate functional mitochondria) influence the onset or severity of autism and its comorbid symptoms.




(My emphasis).  More on why a little later.

There is a lengthy section of the paper regarding the limitations of the study, including a relatively small sample set, racial differences between the participants, and the possibility that the number of evaluations made could impact the strength of some associations.  Detangling the arrow of causality is not possible from this paper, and likely involves different pathways in different patients.  None the less, it is additional confirmation of something gone awry in the power processing centers of cells in people with autism.  

This is a pretty small study, from a number of subjects perspective, and the pilot nature of the study is somewhat of a problem in trying to determine how much caution we must use when attempting to generalize the findings to a larger population.  However, on the other hand, if we look towards earlier findings, some of which were linked above, the reports in Giulivi should not really be that surprising. In fact, we should have been amazed if they hadn’t observed mitochondrial problems. 

Here is why:

We have voluminous observations of a state of increased oxidative stress in the autism population; Chauhan 2004, Zoroglu 2004, James 2004, Ming 2005, Yao 2006, James 2009, Sajdel-Sulkowska 2009, Al-Mosalem 2009, De Felice 2009, Krajcovicová-Kudlácková M 2009, El-Ansari 2010, Mostafa 2010, Youn 2010, Meguid 2010, and Sajdel-Sulkowska 2010, all are clinical trials that reported either increased levels of oxidative stress markers, decreased levels of detoxification markers, or both, in the autism group.  There is no way, absolutely no way that children with autism have less oxidative stress, or the same oxidative stress than children without that diagnosis, barring some mechanism by which all of the above studies are wrong in exactly the same direction.  There is just too much evidence to support an association, and as far as I know, (?) no evidence to counter balance that association.  [Please note that the above studies are for biomarker based studies only, I left out several genetic studies with similar end game conclusions; i.e., alleles known to be associated with increased oxidative stress and/or mitochondrial function are also associated with an autism diagnosis.]

We also have just a large body of clinical evidence that tells us that as oxidative stress and mitochondrial function are closely linked, as oxidative stress increases, so too do problems with mitochondrial function and/or replication; Richter 1998, Beckman 1998, Lu 1999Lee 2000, Wei 2001, Lee 2002,  Liu 2003, Liu 2005, Min Shen 2008 are useful examples.  Unless all of these studies, and many more, are incorrect in the same way, and the underlying physical foundations of why oxidative stress would lead to mitochondrial function are also incorrect, we must conclude that a state of increased oxidative stress, as observed repeatedly in autism, leads to a degradation of mitochondrial function. 

It turns out, there also a growing body of evidence linking oxidative stress and/or mitochondrial dysfunction to other conditions with a neurological basis (Rezin 2009), such as schizophrenia, (Prabakaran 2004, Wood, 2009, Martins-de-Souza 2010, Verge 2010Bitanihirwe 2011) or bi-polar disorder (Andreazza 2010, Clay 2010, Kato 2006, Kaikuchi 2005).  Here is the abstract for Oxidative stress in psychiatric disorders: evidence base and therapeutic implications:

Oxidative stress has been implicated in the pathogenesis of diverse disease states, and may be a common pathogenic mechanism underlying many major psychiatric disorders, as the brain has comparatively greater vulnerability to oxidative damage. This review aims to examine the current evidence for the role of oxidative stress in psychiatric disorders, and its academic and clinical implications. A literature search was conducted using the Medline, Pubmed, PsycINFO, CINAHL PLUS, BIOSIS Preview, and Cochrane databases, with a time-frame extending to September 2007. The broadest data for oxidative stress mechanisms have been derived from studies conducted in schizophrenia, where evidence is available from different areas of oxidative research, including oxidative marker assays, psychopharmacology studies, and clinical trials of antioxidants. For bipolar disorder and depression, a solid foundation for oxidative stress hypotheses has been provided by biochemical, genetic, pharmacological, preclinical therapeutic studies and one clinical trial. Oxidative pathophysiology in anxiety disorders is strongly supported by animal models, and also by human biochemical data. Pilot studies have suggested efficacy of N-acetylcysteine in cocaine dependence, while early evidence is accumulating for oxidative mechanisms in autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In conclusion, multi-dimensional data support the role of oxidative stress in diverse psychiatric disorders. These data not only suggest that oxidative mechanisms may form unifying common pathogenic pathways in psychiatric disorders, but also introduce new targets for the development of therapeutic interventions.

(my emphasis)

Given all of this, one might consider casting an extremely skeptical eye towards the argument that the observations in Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism are insufficiently powered to reach any conclusions about an association; at this point, I think it is fair to say that what should have been surprising finding would have been a lack of mitochondrial dysfunction in autism.   We need to rethink some foundational ideas about the relationship between oxidative stress, mitochondrial function, other neurological disorders, and/or assume that a dozen studies are all incorrect in the same way before the small number of participants and other limitations of this study should cause us to cast too much doubt on the findings.  The findings in Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism are not due to random chance.

All that being said, there are still lots of questions; the most intriguing ones I’ve seen raised in other discussions on this paper would include, Is the mitochondrial dysfunction physiologically significant? and secondly, What has caused so many children with autism to exhibit these physiological differences? 

I’ll admit it, early on in my online/autism persona lifetime, I’d have viewed the first question as largely deserving of a healthy dose of (hilariously delivered) sarcasm.  But the reality is that this is a more difficult question to answer than it would seem on the surface.  The reasons I’ve seen posited that this might be valid sound pretty good at first glance, i.e., the brain is the most prolific user of energy in the body, and problem with energy creation there are pretty simple to equate to cognitive problems.   And this might be what is happening, I don’t believe we have enough information reach any conclusions.  I will note, however, with no small amount of amusement, that the online ‘skeptical’ community had no problem with this exact argument in discussing what happened to Hannah Poling, as long as it was exceptionally rare. 

Specifically speaking towards the problems of physiological significance, we haven’t any direct evidence one way or the other that the mitochondrial dysfunction observed in muscle biopsy or lymphocytes is present in the CNS of people with autism, and this is an important distinction; it is known that there are large differences in mitochondrial need and function between tissue type, and it is almost always dangerous to assume that because you see something outside the privileges of the blood brain barrier, that you will see the same thing within it.  Therefore, we should remember that it is possible that the brains are unaffected, while the peripheral cells are.   

However, we do have some indirect evidence to suggest that there are mitochondrial function problems in the CNS in the autism population.  Based on studies that have measured oxidative stress levels in the brain, specifically Brain Region-Specific Changes in Oxidative Stress and Neurotrophin Levels in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) we have preliminary evidence that areas of the brain are affected by high levels of oxidative stress.  Furthermore, we have a multitude of studies regarding an ongoing immune response in the brain in autism, and we know that the immune response can generate oxidative stress, and indeed, interact with some of the results of oxidative stress, potentially participating in a feedback loop.  

In short, we know that inflammation, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial function are closely linked; considering the fact that we have evidence of two of these processes being altered in the CNS in autism, barring an unforeseen mechanism by which this association is not in place in the brain, an exceedingly unlikely situation given our observations in other cognitive domains, it seems probable that some degree of mitochondrial dysfunction occurs in the brain as well as the periphery.   If this is sufficient to cause autism will require more studies; some evaluations correlating behavioral severity and / or multiple evaluations over time would be good starting points. as well, of course, as direct CNS evaluation.

The second question, towards relevance of these findings, the reason such a large percentage of children with autism appear to have characteristics of mitochondrial dysfunction is even more difficult to detangle.  The potential of a feedback loop existing between oxidative stress and mitochondrial function was problematic enough, but it seems likely there could be other participants, for example, the immune system.  There are repeated observations of an exaggerated immune response, from genetic predispositions to known toll like receptor promoters, circulating levels of endogenous factors associated with a vigorous immune response, baseline levels of cytokines and chemokines, and cytokine values resulting from direct toll like receptor activation.  Is the over active inflammatory response observed in autism causing the mitochondrial dysfunction through an increase in oxidative stress?  Is the increased oxidative stress causing an ongoing inflammatory response?  Studies evaluating for a relationship between these parameters would help to answer these questions.

For a real world example of why such a relationship might be possible, we can take a look at a paper that landed in my inbox around the same time that Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism did, Dopaminergic neuronal injury in the adult rat brain following neonatal exposure to lipopolysaccharide and the silent neurotoxicity.  This paper is another that shows some very difficult to predict outcomes as a response to an early life immune challenge.  Here is the abstract:

Our previous studies have shown that neonatal exposure to lipopolysaccharide (LPS) resulted in motor dysfunction and dopaminergic neuronal injury in the juvenile rat brain. To further examine whether neonatal LPS exposure has persisting effects in adult rats, motor behaviors were examined from postnatal day 7 (P7) to P70 and brain injury was determined in P70 rats following an intracerebral injection of LPS (1 mg/kg) in P5 Sprague–Dawley male rats. Although neonatal LPS exposure resulted in hyperactivity in locomotion and stereotyped tasks, and other disturbances of motor behaviors, the impaired motor functions were spontaneously recovered by P70. On the other hand, neonatal LPS-induced injury to the dopaminergic system such as the loss of dendrites and reduced tyrosine hydroxylase immunoreactivity in the substantia nigra persisted in P70 rats. Neonatal LPS exposure also resulted in sustained inflammatory responses in the P70 rat brain, as indicated by an increased number of activated microglia and elevation of interleukin-1b and interleukin-6 content in the rat brain. In addition, when challenged with methamphetamine (METH, 0.5 mg/kg) subcutaneously, rats with neonatal LPS exposure had significantly increased responses in METH-induced locomotion and stereotypy behaviors as compared to those without LPS exposure. These results indicate that although neonatal LPS-induced neurobehavioral impairment is spontaneously recoverable, the LPS exposure-induced persistent injury to the dopaminergic system and the chronic inflammation may represent the existence of silent neurotoxicity. Our data further suggest that the compromised dendritic mitochondrial function might contribute, at least partially, to the silent neurotoxicity.

(my emphasis)

Briefly, the researchers challenged the animals with an immune stimulator shortly after birth, and then went on to observe chronic microglial activation and inhibited mitochondrial function into adulthood.  Behavioral problems included hyperactivity and stereotyped tasks (though these behaviors appeared to reverse in adulthood.  Subsequent challenge with methamphetamine in adulthood resulted in increased locomotive and stereotyped behaviors in the treatment group. 

Check that out!  These animals never actually got sick, their immune system had only been fooled into thinking that it was under pathogen attack, and yet, still showed chronic activation of the neuroimmune system and impaired mitochondrial function in dendrites into adulthood!  ).  In a sense, it might be appropriate to say, then, that the behaviors were not a state of stasis.  Talk about an inconvenient finding.

There is also the possibility that exposure to chemicals, such as pesticides, may be able to cause mitochondrial dysfunction. 

Finally, during the time it took me to put this post together, several other reviews of Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism landed online in places that purport to be bound by objective and dispassionate evaluation of the science of autism; Respectful Insolencence, LBRB, and Science2.0 all had posts (probably others too).  [The masochists out there that go through the discussion threads will note that several of the thoughts in this posting were experimented with in responses to these threads, ideas which were largely, or entirely, ignored.]  If you were to read these other reviews (I would recommend that you do), you might come away with the impression that Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism consisted of nothing more than criteria for selecting participants and limitations of the study.  The calls for caution in running wild with these findings are there, and I largely agree with this sense of caution, as is the admission that this is an area that should be studied more intently, but nowhere was there any acknowledgement of the consistency between these findings and the repeated observations of increased oxidative stress in autism and the biological reality that oxidative stress is linked with mitochondria function, nowhere was there any mention of the fact that the findings were in alignment with deficiencies in detoxification pathways as observed multiple times in autism, nowhere was there anything regarding our voluminous evidence of impaired mitochondrial function in a veritable spectrum of cognitive disorders.  Did the online skeptical community get a different copy of the paper that I did?  Perhaps, were they unaware of the repeated reports of increased oxidative stress in autism, and the incontrovertible evidence of an association between oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction?  Is there a chance that their pubmed results regarding mitochondria and disorders like schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder are different than mine? 

I am afraid that this is what the vaccine wars and wrangling over the meaning of neurodiversity have done to us; the skeptical community absolutely went “all in” on the premise that the Hannah Poling concession was founded on a very, very rare biological condition.  They have sunk one hundred and ten percent of their credibility behind the notion that thimerosal based studies and MMR based studies are sufficient to answer the question of if vaccines can cause autism, or if we must, features of autism.  And now, with converging evidence from several directions pointing towards a confluence of mitochondria impairment and oxidative stress in autism and other neurological conditions, speaking towards the meat of Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism is more than just eating crow, it is akin to blaspheming, for if diagnosable mitochondrial disorder affects a meaningful fraction of children with autism, and mitochondrial dysfunction a  much larger percentage, the foundations behind the meme of the vaccine question as one that needs no further evaluations begins to fall apart.  That is a legitmately scary proposition, but one that is going to have to be reckoned with sooner or later; the only difference is that the more time passes, the greater the credibility strain on the mainstream medical establishment when, eventually, it is admitted, that we need to come up with good ways to generate quality information on vaccinated and unvaccinated populations. 

Similarly there is remakarble opposition in some quarters to the idea of imparied detoxificiation pathways, or indeed, a state of increased oxidative stress in some of the same places.  I think the underlying reason for this is that some of these early findings were used by some DAN doctors to promote things like chelation, almost certainly the wrong treatment for the overwhelming majority of children on whom it was performed; and in a well intentioned zeal to discount some of these practioners, as well as the outrage over statements by some (i.e., ‘toxic children’), the reality of the situation; that our children are more likely to have increased oxidative stress, do have less glutiathione,  became acceptable facts to bypass in the rush to hurl insults or wax poetic.   We can acknowlege that children with autism have these conditions while simultaneously expressing concern, or outrage, at the notion that this makes them poisonous; but ignoring the physiological reality of our findings does nothing to help anyone.  The data is the data. 

This is all too bad.  In fact, it is worse than too bad; there is no reason, absolutely no reason that a discussion on mitochondrial impairment must focus exclusively on the vaccine question, in fact, just the opposite.  There are lots of ways to achieve an endpoint of mitochondrial dysfunction, and lots of things besides vaccines that can be problematic for people with this problem. (including, of course, actual infection!)  But we have become so polarized, so reliant on hearing the same soundbyte laden diatribes, that any sense of nuance on the question immediately labels on as ‘anti vaccine’, ‘anti science’ (even worse!), or for that matter, ‘pro-vaccine’ or shill.  The questions raised by Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism are important and aren’t going to go away, no matter how inconvenient the follow up findings may be.  

– pD

Hello friends –

A new paper  looking for evidence of an ongoing immune reaction in the brain of people with autism landed the other day, Microglial Activation and Increased Microglial Density Observed in the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex in Autism

BACKGROUND: In the neurodevelopmental disorder autism, several neuroimmune abnormalities have been reported. However, it is unknown whether microglial somal volume or density are altered in the cortex and whether any alteration is associated with age or other potential covariates. METHODS: Microglia in sections from the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of nonmacrencephalic male cases with autism (n = 13) and control cases (n = 9) were visualized via ionized calcium binding adapter molecule 1 immunohistochemistry. In addition to a neuropathological assessment, microglial cell density was stereologically estimated via optical fractionator and average somal volume was quantified via isotropic nucleator. RESULTS: Microglia appeared markedly activated in 5 of 13 cases with autism, including 2 of 3 under age 6, and marginally activated in an additional 4 of 13 cases. Morphological alterations included somal enlargement, process retraction and thickening, and extension of filopodia from processes. Average microglial somal volume was significantly increased in white matter (p = .013), with a trend in gray matter (p = .098). Microglial cell density was increased in gray matter (p = .002). Seizure history did not influence any activation measure. CONCLUSIONS: The activation profile described represents a neuropathological alteration in a sizeable fraction of cases with autism. Given its early presence, microglial activation may play a central role in the pathogenesis of autism in a substantial proportion of patients. Alternatively, activation may represent a response of the innate neuroimmune system to synaptic, neuronal, or neuronal network disturbances, or reflect genetic and/or environmental abnormalities impacting multiple cellular populations.

This is a neat paper,  to my eye not  as comprehensive as the landmark paper on microglial activation, Neuroglial Activation and Neuroinflammation in the Brain of Patients with Autism Neuroglial Activation andNeuroinflammation in the Brain of Patientswith Autism, but still a very interesting read.  Here are the some areas that caught my eye.   From the introduction:

These results provide evidence for microglial activation in autism but stop short of demonstrating quantifiable microglial abnormalities in the cortex, as well as determining the nature of these abnormalities. Somal volume increases are often observed during microglial activation, reflecting a shift toward an amoeboid morphology that is accompanied by retraction and thickening of processes (13). Microglial density may also increase, reflecting either proliferation of resident microglia or increased trafficking of macrophages across a blood-brain barrier opened in response to signaling by cytokines, chemokines, and other immune mediators (13–16). These results provide evidence for microglial activation in autism but stop short of demonstrating quantifiable microglial abnormalitiesin the cortex, as well as determining the nature of these abnormalities. Somal volume increases are often observed during microglial activation, reflecting a shift toward an amoeboid morphology that is accompanied by retraction and thickening ofprocesses (13). Microglial density may also increase, reflecting either proliferation of resident microglia or increased trafficking of macrophages across a blood-brain barrier opened in response to signaling by cytokines, chemokines, and other immune mediators(13–16).

Tragically, my ongoing google based degree in neurology has yet to cover the chapters on specific brain geography, so the finer points, such as the difference between the middle frontal gyri and the neocortex are lost on me.  None the less, several things jump out at me from what I have managed to understand so far.  The shift to an ‘ameboid morphology’ is one that I’ve run into previously, notably in Early-life programming of later-life brain and behavior: a critical role for the immune system, which is a paper I really need to dedicate an entire post towards, but as applicable here, the general idea is that the microglia undergo structural and functional changes during times of immune response; the ‘ameboid’ morphology is associated with an active immune response.  Regarding increased trafficking of macrophages across the BBB, Vargas 2005  noted chemokines (MCP-1) increases in the CNS, so we do have reason to believe such signalling molecules are present.

The authors went on to look for structural changes in microglia, differences in concentration of microglia, and evaluated  for markers indicative of an acute inflammatory response.  Measurements such as grey and white matter volumes and relationships to microglia structural differences, and correlations with seizure activity were also performed.   There were three specimens from children under the age of six that were analyzed as a subgroup to determine if immune activation was present at early ages.   From the discussion section:

Moderate to strong alterations in Iba-1 positive microglial morphology indicative of activation (13,29) are present in 5 of 13 postmortem cases with autism, and mild alterations are present in an additional 4 of 13 cases. These alterations are reflected in a significant increase in average microglial somal volume in white matter and microglial density in gray matter, as well as a trend in microglial somal volume in gray matter. These observations appear to reflect a relatively frequent occurrence of cortical microglial activation in autism.

Of particular interest are the alterations present in two thirds of our youngest cases, during a period of early brain overgrowth in the disorder. Indeed, neither microglial somal volume nor density showed significant correlation with age in autism, suggesting long running alteration that is in striking contrast with neuronal features examined in the same cases (Morgan et al., unpublished data, 2009). The early presence of microglial activation indicates it may play a central pathogenic role in some patients with autism.

The authors evaluated for IL-1R1 receptor presence, essentially a marker for an inflammatory response, and found that the values did not differ between the autism population and controls, and that in fact the controls trended towards expressing more IL-1R1 than the autism group.  I think this was the opposite of what the authors expected to find.

While Iba-1 staining intensity increases modestly in activated microglia (30), strong staining and fine detail were apparent in Iba-1 positive resting microglia in our samples. Second, there is no increase in microglial colocalization with a receptor, IL-1R1, typically upregulated in acute inflammatory reactions (28). The trend toward an increase in colocalization in control cases may also hint at downregulation of inflammatory signal receptors in a chronically activated system.

I don’t think I’ve seen this type of detail in qualitative measures of the neuroimmune response in autism measured previously, so I definitely appreciate the detail.  Furthermore, from a more speculative standpoint, we may have some thoughts on why we might see this in the autism population specifically that I’ll go into detail below a little bit.

The authors failed to find a relationship between seizure activity and microglial activation, which came as a surprise to me, to tell the truth.  Also discussed was the large degree of heterogeneity in the findings in so far as the type and severity of microglial morphological differences observed.  The potential confounds in the study included an inability to control for medication history, and the cause of death, eight of which were drowning in the autism cases.  There was some discussion of potential causes, including, of course, gene-environment interactions, maternal immune activation, neural antibodies, and the idea that “chronic innate immune system activation might gradually produce autoimmune antibodies via the occasional presentation of brain proteins as antigens”  (!)  There was also this snipet:

Microglial activation might also represent an aberrant event during embryonic monocyte infiltration that may or may not also be reflected in astroglial and neuronal populations (17), given the largely or entirely separate developmental lineage of microglia (13). Alternatively, alterations might reflect an innate neuroimmune response to events in the brain such as excessive early neuron generation or aberrant development of neuronal connectivity.

There is a short discussion of the possible effects of an ongoing microglial immune response, including damage to neural cells, reductions in cells such as Purkinjes, and increases in neurotrophic factors such as BDNF.

This is another illustration of an ongoing immune response in the CNS of the autism population, though in this instance, only some of the treatment group appeared to be affected.  It would have been nice to see if there were correlations between behavioral severity and/or specific behavior types, but it would seem that this information is was not available in sufficient quality for this type of analysis, which is likely going to be an ongoing problem with post mortem studies for some time to come.   I believe that an effort to develop an autism tissue bank is underway, perhaps eventually some of these logistical problems will be easier to address.   The fact that some of the samples were from very young children provides evidence that when present, the neuroinflammatory response is chronic, and indeed, likely lifelong.

Stepping away from the paper proper, I had some thoughts about some of these findings that are difficult to defend with more than a skeletal framework, but have been rattling around my head for a little while.  Before we move forward, let’s be clear on a couple of things:

1) The jump from rodent to human is fraught with complications, most of which I doubt we even understand.

2) We can’t be positive that an activated neuroimmune system is the cause of autistic behaviors, as opposed to a result of having autism.  I still think a very strong argument can be made that an ongoing immune response is ultimately detrimental, even if it cannot be proven to be completely responsible for the behavioral manifestation of autism.

3) At the end of the day, I’m just Some Jerk On The Internet.

Those caveats made, Morgan et all spend a little time on the potential cause of a persistent neuroinflammatory state as referenced above.  One of the ideas, “an aberrant event during embyronic monocyte infiltration that may or may not also be reflected in astroglial and neuronal populations  given the largely or entirely separate developmental lineage of microglia”  struck me as particularly salient  when considered alongside the multitude of data we have concerning the difficult to predict findings regarding an immune insult during critical developmental timeframes.

We now have several papers that dig deeper into the mechanism by which immune interaction during development  seem to have physiological effects with some parallels to autism; specifically, Enduring consequences of early-life infection on glial and neural cell genesis within cognitive regions of the brain (Bland et all), and Early-Life Programming of Later-Life Brain and Behavior: A Critical Role for the Immune System (Bilbo et all) ; both of which share Staci Bilbo as an author and I think she is seriously onto something.  Here is the abstract for Bland et all:

Systemic infection with Escherichia coli on postnatal day (P) 4 in rats results in significantly altered brain cytokine responses and behavioral changes in adulthood, but only in response to a subsequent immune challenge with lipopolysaccharide [LPS]. The basis for these changes may be long-term changes in glial cell function. We assessed glial and neural cell genesis in the hippocampus, parietal cortex (PAR), and pre-frontal cortex (PFC), in neonates just after the infection, as well as in adulthood in response to LPS. 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 proliferation. On P33, there were large decreases in numbers of cells coexpressing BrdU and NeuN in all brain regions of E. coli rats compared to controls. In adulthood, basal neurogenesis within the dentate gyrus (DG) did not differ between groups; however, in response to LPS, there was a decrease in neurogenesis in early-infected rats, but an increase in controls to the same challenge. There were also significantly more microglia in the adult DG of early-infected rats, although microglial proliferation in response to LPS was increased in controls. 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 function. These changes include marked alterations in glia, as well as influences on neurogenesis in brain regions important for cognition.

Bland et all went on to theorize on the mechanism by which an infection in early life can have such long lasting effects.

We have hypothesized that the basis for this vulnerability may be long-term changes in glial cell function. Microglia are the primary cytokine producers within the brain, and are an excellent candidate for long-term changes, because they are long-lived and can become and remain activated chronically (Town et al., 2005). There is increasing support for the concept of ‘‘glial priming”, in which cells can become sensitized by an insult, challenge, or injury,  such that subsequent responses to a challenge are exaggerated (Perry et al., 2003).

The authors infected some rodents with e-coli on postnatal day four, and then evaluated for microglial function in  adulthood.

We have hypothesized that the basis for early-life infection-induced vulnerability to altered cytokine expression and cognitive deficits in adulthood may be due to long-term changes in glial cell function and/or influences on subsequent neural development. E. coli infection on P4 markedly increased microglial proliferation in the CA regions of the hippocampus and PAR of newborn pups, compared to a PBS injection (Figs. 3 and 4). The total number of microglia, and specifically microglia with an ‘‘active” morphology  (amoeboid, with thick processes), were also increased as a consence of infection. There was a concomitant decrease in non microglial newborn cells (BrdU + only) in the early-infected rats, in the same regions.

Check that shit out! Rodents infected with E-coli during the neonatal period had an increased number of active microglia when compared to rodents that got saline as neonates.   Keep in mind that the backbone of these studies, and studies from other groups indicate that this persistence of effects are not specific to an e-coli infection, but rather, can be triggered by any immune response during critical timeframes.  In fact, at least two studies have employed anti-inflammatory agents, and observed an attenuation of effect regarding seizure susceptibility.

A final snipet from Bland et all Discussion section:

Although the mechanisms remain largely unknown, the ‘‘glial cell priming” hypothesis posits that these cells have the capacity to become chronically sensitized by an inflammatory event within the brain (Perry et al., 2003). We assessed whether glial priming may be a likely factor in the current study by measuring the volume of each counted microglial cell within our stereological analysis. The morphology of primed glial cells is similar to that of ‘‘activated” cells (e.g., amoeboid, phagocytic), but primed glial cells do not chronically produce cytokines and other pro-inflammatory mediators typical of cells in an activated state. There was a striking increase in cell volume within the CA1 region of adult rats infected as neonates (Figs. 2 and 8), the same region in which a marked increase in newborn glia was observed at P6. These data are consistent with the hypothesis that an inflammatory environment early in life may prime the surviving cells long-term, such that they over-respond to a second challenge, which we have demonstrated at the mRNA level in previous studies (Bilbo et al., 2005a, 2007; Bilbo and Schwarz, in press).

The concept of glial priming, close friends with the ‘two hit’ hypothesis (or soon to be, the multi-hit hypothesis?),  has some other very neat studies behind it, the coolest ones I’ve found so far are from a group at Northwestern, and include “hits” such as  Glial activation links early-life seizures and long-term neurologic dysfunction: evidence using a small molecule inhibitor of proinflammatory cytokine upregulationEnhanced microglial activation and proinflammatory cytokine upregulation are linked to increased susceptibility to seizures and neurologic injury in a ‘two-hit’ seizure model and Minozac treatment prevents increased seizure susceptibility in a mouse “two-hit” model of closed skull traumatic brain injury and electroconvulsive shock-induced seizures.   Also the tragically, hilariously titled, Neonatal lipopolysaccharide and adult stress exposure predisposes rats to anxiety-like behaviour and blunted corticosterone responses: implications for the double-hit hypothesis. (!)  These are potentially very inconvenient findings, the details for which I’ll save for another post.

Moving on to Bilbo et all, though a pure review paper than an experiment, it provides additional detailed theories on the mechanisms behind persistent effects of early life immune challenge.  Here’s the abstract:

The immune system is well characterized for its critical role in host defense. Far beyond this limited role however, there is mounting evidence for the vital role the immune system plays within the brain, in both normal, “homeostatic” processes (e.g., sleep, metabolism, memory), as well as in pathology, when the dysregulation of immune molecules may occur. This recognition is especially critical in the area of brain development. Microglia and astrocytes, the primary immunocompetent cells of the CNS, are involved in every major aspect of brain development and function, including synaptogenesis, apoptosis, and angiogenesis. Cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF)α, interleukin [IL]-1β, and IL-6 are produced by glia within the CNS, and are implicated in synaptic formation and scaling, long-term potentiation, and neurogenesis. Importantly, cytokines are involved in both injury and repair, and the conditions underlying these distinct outcomes are under intense investigation and debate. Evidence from both animal and human studies implicates the immune system in a number of disorders with known or suspected developmental origins, including schizophrenia, anxiety/depression, and cognitive dysfunction. We review the evidence that infection during the perinatal period of life acts as a vulnerability factor for later-life alterations in cytokine production, and marked changes in cognitive and affective behaviors throughout the remainder of the lifespan. We also discuss the hypothesis that long-term changes in brain glial cell function underlie this vulnerability.

Bilbo et all go on to discuss the potential for time sensitive insults that could result in an altered microglial function.  Anyone that has been paying attention should know that the concept of time dependent effects is, to my mind, the biggest blind spot in our existing research concerning autism and everyones favorite environmental agent.

Is there a sensitive period? Does an immune challenge early in life influence brain and behavior in a way that depends on developmental processes? Since 2000 alone, there have been numerous reports in the animal literature of perinatal immune challenges ranging from early gestation to the juvenile period, and their consequences for adult offspring phenotypes (see Table 1). It is clear that the timing of a challenge is likely a critical factor for later outcomes, impacting the distinct developmental time courses of different brain regions and their underlying mechanisms (e.g., neurotransmitter system development, synapse formation, glial and neural cell genesis, etc; Herlenius and Lagercrantz, 2004; Stead et al., 2006). However, the original question of whether these changes depend on development has been surprisingly little addressed. We have demonstrated that infection on P30 does not result in memory impairments later in life (Bilbo et al., 2006), nor does it induce the long-term changes in glial activation and cytokine expression observed with a P4 infection (Bilbo et al., unpublished data). The factors defining this “sensitive period” are undoubtedly many, as suggested above. However, our working hypothesis is that one primary reason the early postnatal period in rats is a sensitive or critical period for later-life vulnerabilities to immune stimuli, is because the glia themselves are functionally different at this time. Several studies have demonstrated that amoeboid, “macrophage-like”, microglia first appear in the rat brain no earlier than E14, and steadily increase in density until about P7. By P15 they have largely transitioned to a ramified, adult morphology. Thus, the peak in density and amoeboid morphology (and function) occurs within the first postnatal week, with slight variability depending on brain region (Giulian et al., 1988; Wu et al., 1992).  [emphasis theirs]

[Note:  The authors go on to state that this time period is likely developmentally equivalent to the late second, to early third trimester of human fetal development.]

We seem to have a growing abundance of evidence that immune stimulation in utero can have neurological impacts on the fetus that include schizophrenia, and autism.   In some instances, we have specific viral triggers; i.e., the flu or rubella, but  I’d further posit that we have increasing reason to believe that any immune response can have a similar effect.  The Patterson studies involving IL-6 in a rodent model of maternal activation seem to make this point with particular grace, as the use of IL-6 knockout mice attenuated the effect, as did IL-6 antibodies; and direct injection of IL-6 in the absence of actual infection produced similar outcomes.  In animal models designed to study a variety of effects, we have a veritable spectrum of studies that tell us that immune insults during critical developmental timeframes can have lifelong effects on neuroimmune activity, HPA-axis reactions, seizure susceptibility, and ultimately, altered behaviors.  I believe that we are rapidly approaching a point where there will be little question as towards if a robust immune response during development can lead to a developmental trajectory that includes autism, and will instead be faced with attempting to detangle the more subtle, and inconvenient, mechanisms of action, temporal windows of vulnerability, and indeed if there are subgroups of individuals that are predisposed to be more likely to suffer from such an insult.

Another thing that struck me about Morgan was the speculation that an increased presence of IL-1R in controls may have been suggestive of an attempt to muzzle the immune response in the case group; repeated from Morgan “The trend toward an increase in colocalization in control cases may also hint at downregulation of inflammatory signal receptors in a chronically activated system.” In other words, for controls it wasn’t a big deal to be expressing IL-1R in a ‘normal’ fashion, because the immune system is in a state of balance.  Another way of looking at our observations would be to ask the question as towards what has caused the normally self regulating immune system to fail to return to a state of homeostasis?   Ramping up an immune response to fight off pathogens and ratcheting back down to avoid unnecessary problems is something most peoples immune systems do with regularity.  Is the immune system in autism trying to shut down unsuccessfully?

There are clues that the homeostatic mechanisms are trying to restore a balanced system.  For example, in Immune transcriptome alterations in the temporal cortex of subjects with autism, researchers reported that the genetic pathway analysis reveals a pattern that could be consistent with “an inability to attenuate a cytokine activation signal.” Another paper that I need to spend some read in full, Involvement of the PRKCB1 gene in autistic disorder: significant genetic association and reduced neocortical gene expression describes a genetic and expression based study that concludes, in part, that downregulation of PRKCB1 “could represent a compensatory adjustment aimed at limiting an ongoing dysreactive immune process“.

If we look to clinical evidence for a decreased capacity to regulate an immune response, one paper that might help is Decreased transforming growth factor beta1 in autism: a potential link between immune dysregulation and impairment in clinical behavioral outcomes, the authors report an inverse dose relationship between peripheral levels of an important immune  regulator, TGF-Beta1,  and autism severity; i.e., the less TGF-Beta1 in a subject, the worse the autism behaviors [the autism group also, as a whole, had less TGF-Beta1 than the controls].

And then, in between the time that Morgan came out, and I completed this posting, another paper hit my inbox that might provide some clues,a title that is filled to the brim with autism soundbytes, “Effects of mitochondrial dysfunction on the immunological properties of microglia“.  The whole Hannah Poling thing seemed so contrived to me, basically two sets of people trying to argue past each other to reach a predetermined conclusions, and as a result, I’ve largely shied away from digging too deeply into the mitochondrial angle.  This may not be a luxury I have anymore after reading Ferger et all.   For our purposes, lets forget about classically diagnosed and acute mitochonrdrial disease, as Hannah Poling supposedly has, and just acknowledge that we have several studies that show that children with autism seem to have signs of mitochondrial dysfunction, as I understand it, sort of a halfway between normal mitochondrial processing and full blown mitochondrial disorder.  Given that, what does Ferger tell us?  Essentially an in vitro study, the group took microglial cells from mice, exposed some of them to toxins known to interferre with the electron transport chain, and exposed the same cells to either LPS or IL-4 to measure the subsequent immunological response.  What they observed was that the response to LPS was unchanged, but the response to IL-4, was blunted; and pertinently for our case, the IL-4 response is a so called ‘alternative’ immune response, that participates in shutting down the immune response.  From the conclusion of Ferger:

In summary, we have shown that mitochondrial dysfunction in mouse microglial cells inhibit some aspects of alternative activation, whereas classic activation seems to remain unchanged. If, in neurological diseases, microglial cells are also affected by mitochondrial dysfunction, they might not be able to induce a full anti-inflammatory alternative response and thereby exacerbate neuroinflammation. This would be associated with detrimental effects for the CNS since wound healing and attenuation of inflammation would be impaired.

If our model of interest is autism, our findings can begin to fit together with remarkable elegance.  And we haven’t even gone over  our numerous studies that show the flip side of the immunological coin; that children with autism have been shown time and time again to have a tendency towards an exaggerated immune response, and increased baseline pro-inflammatory cytokines when compared with their non diagnosed peers!

Anyways, those are my bonus theoretical pontifications regarding Morgan.

– pD

Hello friends –

I’ve been referencing this paper in some discussions online for a while; I’ve read it, and in fact, while working on another project, got the opportunity to speak with one of the authors of the paper.  It’s a very cool paper with a lot of information in it, some of which, could be considered inconvenient findings.  Here is the abstract:

Immune transcriptome alterations in the temporal cortex of subjects with autism

Autism is a severe disorder that involves both genetic and environmental factors. Expression profiling of the superior temporal gyrus of six autistic subjects and matched controls revealed increased transcript levels of many immune system related genes. We also noticed changes in transcripts related to cell communication, differentiation, cell cycle regulation and chaperone systems. Critical expression changes were confirmed by qPCR (BCL6, CHI3L1, CYR61, IFI16, IFITM3, MAP2K3, PTDSR, RFX4, SPP1, RELN, NOTCH2, RIT1, SFN, GADD45B, HSPA6, HSPB8and SERPINH1). Overall, these expression patterns appear to be more associated with the late recovery phase of autoimmune brain disorders, than with the innate immune response characteristic of neurodegenerative diseases. Moreover, a variance-based analysis revealed much greater transcript variability in brains from autistic subjects compared to the control group, suggesting that these genes may represent autism susceptibility genes and should be assessed in follow-up genetic studies.

(emphasis is mine) [Full paper freely available from that link]

I am particularly intrigued by the second bolded sentence regarding the “these expression patterns appear to be more associated with the later recovery phase of autoimmune brain disorders, than the innate immune response characteristic of neurodegenerative diseases”.  I’ve had it put to me previously that we should not necessarily implicate neuroinflammation in autism, the argument being that even though we had evidence of chronically activated microglia, what we do not seem to have evidence for is actual damage to the brain, and ergo, the neuroinflammation may actually be a byproduct of having autism, as opposed to playing a causative role, or that in fact, the neuroinflammation might even be beneficial.  There have been some other places where the claim has been made that because our profile of neuroinflammation doesn’t match more classically recognized neurodegenerative disorders (i.e., MS/Alzheimer’s/Parkinson’s), that therefore, certain environmental agents need not be fully investigated as a potential contributor to autism.  This is the first time that I am aware that someone has attempted to classify the neuroinflammatory pattern observed in autism not only as distinctly different from classical neurodegenerative diseases, but to also go so far as to provide a more refined example.

From the Introduction:

In order to better understand the molecular changes associated with ASD, we assessed the transcriptome of the temporal cortex of postmortem brains from autistic subjects and compared it to matched healthy controls. This assessment was performed using oligonucleotide DNA microarrays on six autistic-control pairs. While the sample size is limited by the availability of high-quality RNA from postmortem subjects with ASD, this sample size is sufficient to uncover robust and relatively uniform changes that may be characteristic of the majority of subjects. Our study revealed a dramatic increase in the expression of immune system-related genes. Furthermore, transcripts of genes involved in cell communication, differentiation, cell cycle regulation and cell death were also profoundly affected. Many of the genes altered in the temporal cortex of autistic subjects are part of the cytokine signaling/regulatory pathway, suggesting that a dysreactive immune process is a critical driver of the observed ASD-related transcriptome profile.

I was initially very skeptical about this, with a sample set so small, wasn’t it difficult to ascertain if their findings were by chance or not?  It turns out, the answer depends on the type of datapoint you are evaluating against.  A powerful tool in use by the researchers is a recent addition to the genetic analysis research suite, not only the ability to scan for thousands of gene activity levels simultaneously, but the use of known gene networks to identify if among those thousands of results, related genes are being expressed differentially.  This is important for some amazingly robust findings presented later in the paper, so lets sidetrack a little bit.  Here is a nice overview of the process being used:

Gene set enrichment analysis: A knowledge-based approach for interpreting genome-wide expression profiles

Although genomewide RNA expression analysis has become a routine tool in biomedical research, extracting biological insight from such information remains a major challenge. Here, we describe a powerful analytical method called Gene Set Enrichment Analysis (GSEA) for interpreting gene expression data. The method derives its power by focusing on gene sets, that is, groups of genes that share common biological function, chromosomal location, or regulation.  A common approach involves focusing on a handful of genes at the top and bottom of L (i.e., those showing the largest difference) to discern telltale biological clues. This approach has a few major limitations.

(i) After correcting for multiple hypotheses testing, no individual gene may meet the threshold for statistical significance, because the relevant biological differences are modest relative to the noise inherent to the microarray technology.

(ii) Alternatively, one may be left with a long list of statistically significant genes without any unifying biological theme. Interpretation can be daunting and ad hoc, being dependent on a biologist’s area of expertise.

(iii) Single-gene analysis may miss important effects on pathways. Cellular processes often affect sets of genes acting in concert. An increase of 20% in all genes encoding members of a metabolic pathway may dramatically alter the flux through the pathway and may be more important than a 20-fold increase in a single gene.

(iv) When different groups study the same biological system, the list of statistically significant genes from the two studies may show distressingly little overlap (3).

So, back to Garbett, not only did the authors find a great number of genes overexpressed in the autism group (and a smaller number, underexpressed), when they threw their thousands of results of individual genes into the GSEA, what came back was that several genetic pathways were very significantly altered, many of them immune mediated. This is a big step in understanding in my opinion.  I believe we have likely come full circle on our understanding of very high penetrance genes that might be driving towards a developmental trajectory of autism; i.e., Rhett, Fragile-X.  But using this technique we can determine if entire biological pathways are altered by measuring the output of genes.  Specifically the point made in bullet (iii) stands out to me; having a twenty fold increase in a single gene might not be too big a deal if the other participants in the proteins function cannot be altered by twenty fold as a result due to other rate limiting constraints; but if we can see related sets of genes with similar expression profiles, we can get a much better picture of the biological results of different expression.

The methods get dense pretty quickly, but are worth a shot to show how thorough the researchers were to insure that their findings were likely to be signficant.  Essentially they performed three different statistical tests against their results of differentially expressed genes and broke their results down into genes that passed all three tests, two of three test, or one of three tests.  Furthermore, a selected twenty genes were targeted with qPCR validation, which in all cases showed the expected directionality; i.e., if the expression was increased in the transcriptome analysis, qPCR analysis confirmed the increased expression.To provide another benchmark, they tested for other genes known to be associated with autism, REELN, and GFAP and found results consistent with other papers.

Having determined a large number of differentially expressed genes, the authors then went to try to analyze the known function of these genes.

These classifications were performed on a selected gene set that is differentially expressed between AUT and CONT subjects; based on the success of our qPCR validation, we decided to perform this analysis using transcripts that both reported an |ALR>1| and that reached p<0.05 in at least 2/3 statistical significance comparisons. Of 221 such transcripts, 186 had increased expression in AUT compared to CONT, while only 35 genes showed reduced expression in the AUT samples. We subjected these transcripts to an extensive literature search and observed that 72 out of 193 (37.3%) annotated and differentially expressed transcripts were either immune system related or cytokine responsive transcripts (Supplemental Material 2). Following this first classification, we were able to more precisely sub-classify these 72 annotated genes into three major functional subcategories, which overlap to a different degree; 1) cell communication and motility, 2) cell fate and differentiation, and 3) chaperones (Figure 3). The deregulation of these gene pathways might indicate that the profound molecular differences observed in the temporal cortex of autistic subjects possibly originate from an inability to attenuate a cytokine activation signal.

That last sentence packs a lot of punch for a couple of reasons.  It would seem to be consistent with their statements regarding a “late recovery phase” of an autoimmune disorder; i.e., an immune response was initiated at some point in the past, but has yet to be completely silenced.  This also isn’t the first time that the idea of problems regulating an immune response (i.e., the inability to attenuate a cytokine activation signal) has been suggested from clinical findings, for example, in Decreased transforming Growth Factor Beta1 in Autism: A Potential Link Between Immune Dysregulation and Impairment in Clinical Behavioral Outcomes, the authors found an inverse correlation between TGF-Beta1 and autism behavioral severity:

Given that a major role of TGFβ1 is to control inflammation, the negative correlations observed for TGFβ1 and behaviors may suggest that there is increased inflammation and/or ongoing inflammatory processes in subjects that exhibit higher (worse) behavioral scores.

As such, TGFβ has often been considered as one of the crucial regulators within the immune system and a key mediator in the development of autoimmune and systemic inflammation.

In summary, this study demonstrates that there is a significant reduction in TGFβ1 levels in the plasma of young children who have ASD compared with typically developing children and with non-ASD developmentally delayed controls who were frequency-matched on age. Such immune dysregulation may predispose to the development of autoimmunity and/or adverse neuroimmune interactions that could occur during critical windows in development.

[full paper from the link]

The theme of a critical window of development and enduring consequences of insults during that window is one that is getting more and more attention recently; this is an area that is going to get more and more attention as time goes by, and eventually, as the clinical data continues to pile up, meaningless taglines aren’t going to be enough to keep us from dispassionately evaluating our actions.

The Discussion section is particularly nice, I’ll try not to just quote the entire thing.  Here are the really juicy parts.

The results of our study suggest that 1) in autism, transcript induction events greatly outnumbers transcript repression processes; 2) the neocortical transcriptome of autistic individuals is characterized by a strong immune response; 3) the transcription of genes related to cell communication, differentiation and cell cycle regulation is altered, putatively in an immune system-dependent manner, and 4) transcriptome variability is increased among autistic subjects, as compared to matched controls. Furthermore, our study also provides additional support for previously reported involvement of MET, GAD1, GFAP, RELN and other genes in the pathophysiology of autism. While the findings were obtained on a limited sample size, the statistical power, together with the previously reported postmortem data by other investigators suggest that the observed gene expression changes are likely to be critically related to the pathophysiology seen in the brain of the majority of ASD patients.

There is some description of studies using gene expression testing in the autism realm where the authors ultimately conclude that technical and methodological differences between the studies make them difficult to tie together coherently.  There is another small section re-iterating the findings that were similar to single gene studies; i.e., REELN, MET, and GAD genes.

The most prominent expression changes in our dataset are clearly related to neuroimmune disturbances in the cortical tissue of autistic subjects. The idea of brain inflammatory changes in autism is not novel; epidemiological, (DeLong et al., 1981; Yamashita et al., 2003; Libbey et al., 2005) serological studies (Vargas et al., 2005; Ashwood et al., 2006) and postmortem studies (Pardo et al., 2005; Vargas et al., 2005; Korkmaz et al., 2006) over the last 10 years have provided compelling evidence that immune system response is an essential contributor to the pathophysiology of this disorder (Ashwood et al. 2006). Finally, converging post-mortem assessments and measurements of cytokines in the CSF of autistic children (Vargas et al., 2005), may indicating an ongoing immunological process involving multiple brain regions

Nothing really new here to anyone that is paying attention, but good information for the extremely common, gross oversimplification that ‘immune abnormalities’ have been found in autism, but we don’t have any good reason to think they may be part of the problem.  Of course, this is an argument you’ll see a lot of the time regarding everyone’s favorite environmental agent.

Altered immune system genes are often observed across various brain disorders, albeit there are notable differences between the observed transcriptome patterns. The majority of neuroimmune genes found activated in the autistic brains overlap with mouse genes that are activated during the late recovery or “repair” phase in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (Baranzini et al., 2005). This suggests a presence of an innate immune response in autism. However, the altered IL2RB, TH1TH2, and FAS pathways suggest a simultaneously occurring, T cell-mediated acquired immune response. Based on these combined findings we propose that the expression pattern in the autistic brains resembles a late stage autoimmune event rather than an acute autoimmune response or a non-specific immune activation seen in neurodegenerative diseases. Furthermore, the presence of an acquired immune component could conceivably point toward a potential viral trigger for an early-onset chronic autoimmune process leading to altered neurodevelopment and to persistent immune activation in the brain. Interestingly, recently obtained gene expression signatures of subjects with schizophrenia (Arion et al., 2007) show a partial, but important overlap with the altered neuroimmune genes found here in autism. These commonly observed immune changes may represent a long-lasting consequence of a shared, early life immune challenge, perhaps occurring at different developmental stages and thus affecting different brain regions, or yielding distinct clinical phenotypes due to different underlying premorbid genetic backgrounds.

The last sentence, regarding ‘long-lasting’ consequences of early life immune challenges is one that has a large, and growing body of evidence in the literature that report physiological and behavioral similarities to autism.  We also have recent evidence that hospitilization for viral or bacterial infection during childhood is associated with an autism diagnosis.    There is, of course, a liberal sprinkling of ‘mays’, ‘propose’, and ‘conceivably’ caveats in place here.

Earlier I mentioned that the authors studied gene networks in addition to single gene expressions., and that some of those findings were very significant.  The results of this are found in Table 2.  In one discussion, I had it pointed out to me by ScienceMom that it appeared that some of the networks were not found to be statistically significant (and ergo we should not necessarily assume that immune dysfunction was a participant in autism).   [If you look at Table 2, some networks like a p value of 0000].   I decided to use the data in this paper for another project that isn’t ready yet, but in that process I was able to speak directly with one of the authors of this paper.  I asked him about this, and he told me that this was a function of space limitations; all of the gene networks described were found to be statistically signficant, but in some instances there wasn’t enough space to typeset the p value. In fact, some networks were found to be differentially expressed with a p-value of .000000000000001.  (!!!!!!!!)  That isn’t a value that you see very often.

I recently got a copy of Mitochondrial dysfunction in Autism Spectrum Disorders: cause or effect, which shares an author with this paper, Persico.  In that paper, they reference Immune Transcriptome Alterations In the Temporal Cortex of Subjects With Autism, invoking a potential cascade effect of prenatal immune challenge, inherited calcium transport deficiencies, and resultant mitochondrial dysfunction that could lead to autism.  I’ve generally stayed away from the mitochondria stuff in the discussion realm; even though I think it is probably somewhat important to some children, and critically important to a select few children,  I’ve mostly found that the discussion of mitochondrial issues is comprised of two sets of people talking past one another so as to prove something, or disprove something about everyones favorite environmental agent; but this is a neat paper that I’d like to get to eventually.

– pD

Hello friends –

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

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

[Emphasis is mine.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– pD

Hello friends –

My over riding idea set on vaccines is relatively complicated; but at the heart, I just am not confident that we are smart enough to understand all of the potential impacts of aggressively pursuing mass vaccination; it is too drastic a change from how every animal on the planet evolved to be taken as lightly as we seem to be. The indisputable success of vaccination, I fear, has made it difficult to even ask questions about the pragmatism of moving forward with breakneck speed to a place where we think are clever enough to take a shortcut over millions of years of evolution without even bothering to evaluate for unintended consequences.  It isn’t that I think I am smarter than the immunologists who develop vaccines; it is that I think  we as a species, are too dumb to understand the impact of our actions without quality evaluations; detailed analysis that is sorely lacking in the area of vaccines. 

Before moving forward, it should be made clear that for a variety of reasons, the research regarding vaccines and autism that is available to us is has a very tight focus, either thimerosal content or its absence, or MMR. This is a statement of fact. There are no autism studies that evaluate anything else in the vaccination schedule other than these two components. There just aren’t. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either misinformed, or intentionally trying to deceive you for reasons of their own.

A common refrain heard in the debates over vaccinations and autism goes something like this: “We’ve studied it again and again, and every time, we see no association. It is time to move on and spend precious dollars and researcher hours elsewhere.” Also frequently used is the a variation on this quote: “Insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results.”

When I hear things like this, it drives me apeshit crazy; especially when it comes from the mouths of scientists, people who (supposedly?) understand the simplest foundation of the scientific principle, that you only learn about what you study. A study evaluating use of thimerosal vaccines and their non thimerosal containing counterparts has no mechanism of gaining insight into the effect cumulative early life immune activations; both vaccines have the exact same mechanism of action in that regard; otherwise, they wouldn’t be vaccines. In an ironic twist, continuing to study thimerosal, but claiming it gives us information regarding vaccination is, in large part, doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.  Likewise, studying the MMR has been useful, as we have learned much about the MMR; but it gives us precious little insight into the effect of other vaccines, including those given at much, much earlier ages.

If we did twenty studies on cigarettes with tar and those without tar, should the resultant pattern of epidemiological findings give us any reason to believe we should extrapolate our findings outside the realm of the impact of tar in cigarettes?  Or, just because the MMR has been found to not to be associated with autism at eighteen months, should we also assume that other vaccines given at two months are therefore not associated with autism?  This is absolutely analogous to what we are being told regarding our existing set of research. 

That being said, it isn’t really enough to start questioning a massively successful health policy that has saved millions of lives just because some jerk on the Internet doesn’t think we’ve done enough looking into it and our existing studies have yet to tackle every imaginable combination of vaccine schedule, and genetic variation. The argument goes something along the lines of, “Yes, you are technically correct, but without some biologically plausible mechanism of action, we cannot keep on studying something just because there exists a temporal relationship between an increase in the vaccination schedule and an apparent increase in autism diagnosis.”  Without any concept of how more, earlier vaccines could be having an adverse effect that is invisible to our existing studies, there is merit to this argument. 

It is here that the research outlined below helps fill a gap in the discussion.   Anyways, a few weeks ago I was  reference backtracking, and wound up reading a set of research involving rather unexpected findings regarding the result of early life infectious exposure and resultant immune system activation. Looking through those references, it turns out, several research groups have been doing work regarding the effect of early development immune system activation and consequent alterations to a variety of biological realms, including effects on immune system functioning, altered stress responses, seizure susceptibility, and behavioral changes, into adulthood. In fact, many researchers have reported that a transient inflammatory response is capable of creating lifelong differences in exposed animals, if they are exposed during early development. The immune system is a work in progress in the prenatal and early post natal periods, and appears to be highly impressionable, and in some instances, unforgiving in response to disturbances. Note that the vast majority of the research below has only been published in the last couple of years; long, long after we started to aggressively increase the number of vaccines our youngest infants were receiving.

Most of the studies use a relatively standard component for initiating an immune response in the animals, Lipopolysacccharide, or shorthanded, LPS.  All of them deal with observing changes in animals into adulthood after early postnatal activation of the immune system.  Several were able to concurrently determine that the time of the immune activation was the determining factor in the animals persistent changes. 

Once I started trying to create a list of all of the research into this area, it was quickly apparent that it was overly cumbersome to get through, and ran the risk of turning into a stream of consciousness style listing of papers without an over riding set of guide posts as to why they might have implications for our vaccination schedule and autism or other neurological disorders.  With that in mind, I constructed a list of areas that these papers address and speak towards the blindspots in our existing vaccine research. 

  • Studies that took care to answer the question that the immune response  was responsible for differential behavioral or physiological outcomes.   For example, could the same outcome be achieved by administering inflammatory cytokines, as opposed to a bacterial or viral protein analog?  Was there an attempt made to introduce inflammatory inhibitors  that resulted in a negation of effects?  This is an important distinction, as otherwise, the argument could  be made that it was the LPS, as opposed to the resultant immune response that was responsible for the different outcomes. 
  • Studies that evaluated the effect of a time dependent effect on behavioral or physiological outcomes.   For example, did animals have different outcomes if their was an immune challenge at one week, as opposed to one month?   An extremely common refrain in this discussion is ‘the poison makes the dose’, unfortunately, it would seem that this is not necessarily the case.  
  • Studies that had findings that have correlations with known behavioral or physiological findings in autism.  Of course, without any findings that have similarities to autism, this exercise would be largely futile for a blog about autism!

Before getting started, I’d like to be clear that I am not advocating that vaccines cause autism; but rather, that we haven’t studied the issue very well, and that we are gaining experimental evidence that our existing studies are inadequately designed to capture many potential unintended effects.  My belief is that increased vaccination could impart a mild to moderate risk of autism diagnosis in some genetically predisposed individuals, and while I believe  that a true increase in autism prevalence is occurring, that not all of this is caused by vaccination.  A fuller detailing of these views if for another post, but the pertinent part here is that the studies outlined below tell us that we still have a lot to learn about how the immune system operates, especially during early development, and given that, proclamations that the vaccine schedule has been fully evaluated involve large leaps of faith. 

That being said, lets take a look at some of the papers on the subject.  In all instances below, the emphasis provided is my own.  Many abstracts are snipped for space purposes.

Postnatal Inflammation Increases Seizure Susceptibility in Adult Rats

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

The most exciting finding of the present study is that a mild inflammatory response evoked by LPS during a critical period of development causes a long-lasting increase in hippocampal excitability in vitro, and enhanced seizure susceptibility to the convulsants LI-PILO, KA, and PTZ in vivo. The latter effect was observed over a range of mildly inflammatory doses of LPS and was only evident if administered during the second postnatal week (P7 and P14), and not before (P1) or after (P20) this time. Importantly, inactivation of the proinflammatory cytokine TNF with an intracerebroventricular TNF antibody blocked the long-term changes to seizure susceptibility induced by LPS, whereas intracerebroventricular administration of rrTNF alone mimicked the effect of LPS on seizure susceptibility. These novel results indicate that a single transient inflammatory episode during development can modify the brain through a TNF-dependant mechanism, making it more susceptible to generate seizures in adulthood.

This paper hits a lot of the sweet spots we defined above; there was a differential effect on depending on when an immune response was initiated, pro inflammatory cytokine administration alone was sufficient to cause the same effect, and furthering the link to the immune response, administration of tnf alpha antibodies negated any effects. 

Of particular interest to our population of children, it is well established that children with autism grow up into adults with of epilepsy at far, far greater rates than their non diagnosed peers. One way to increase the likelihood of having more seizures, it appears, is to get a large dose of tnf alpha in early development.  Having a seizure in the first year of life has been found to be very strongly associated with an autism diagnosis, however, with this type of study it is difficult to detangle the cause and the effect; i.e., are they having seizures because they have autism, or are they getting diagnosed with autism as a result of early life  seizures?   There are some studies on the long term effect of early life seizures that show chronic activation of the brains immune system; and again, the innate inflammatory immune response is implicated in causation. 

Also of particular interest regarding autism is that the driving factor in this case was tnf alpha, a proinflammatory cytokine that has been shown to be elevated in several studies of children with autism. In fact, when researchers use drawn blood to determine immune responses, children with autism have been found to generate far more tnf alpha than controls in response to increasingly common (and scary) pollutants, common dietary boogeymen, and LPS. In other words, children with autism seem predisposed to creating more tnf alpha in response to a variety of environmental factors .  In two studies that analyzed the brains and CSF of children with autism, highly elevated levels of tns alpha were observed. 



 Here is one with a great title:


Long-term alterations in neuroimmune responses after neonatal exposure to lipopolysaccharide.

Fever is an integral part of the host’s defense to infection that is orchestrated by the brain. A reduced febrile response is associated with reduced survival. Consequently, we have asked if early life immune exposure will alter febrile and neurochemical responses to immune stress in adulthood. Fourteen-day-old neonatal male rats were given Escherichia coli lipopolysaccharide (LPS) that caused either fever or hypothermia depending on ambient temperature. Control rats were given pyrogen-free saline. Regardless of the presence of neonatal fever, adult animals that had been neonatally exposed to LPS displayed attenuated fevers in response to intraperitoneal LPS but unaltered responses to intraperitoneal interleukin 1 or intracerebroventricular prostaglandin E2. The characteristic reduction in activity that accompanies fever was unaltered, however, as a function of neonatal LPS exposure. Treatment of neonates with an antigenically dissimilar LPS (Salmonella enteritidis) was equally effective in reducing adult responses to E. coli LPS, indicating an alteration in the innate immune response.In adults treated as neonates with LPS, basal levels of hypothalamic cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2), determined by semiquantitative Western blot analysis, were significantly elevated compared with controls. In addition, whereas adult controls responded to LPS with the expected induction of COX-2, adults pretreated neonatally with LPS responded to LPS with a reduction in COX-2. Thus, neonatal LPS can alter CNS-mediated inflammatory responses in adult rats.

Here, again, the authors again went to some trouble to provide evidence that the effect was based on the resultant immune response by providing different bacterial proteins.  We also observe long term, persistent alterations in COX-2 levels; essentially an indicator of changes to the immune regulatory system; inhibition of the COX enzymes is how pain relievers such as aspirin and  Vioix work.   Strangely, it seems that the treatment group had higher resting levels of COX-2, but reduced production in response to a challenge.   The authors went on to perform a similar experiment on female rodents, with mixed similarities; the reduced fever response and response to challenge were observed as with the males, but, baseline levels of COX-2 were found to be the same between treatment and control animals.   There are obvious correlations here with the sexual dismorphism in autism diagnosis here, if anyone has any thoughts on sexual dismorphic COX-2 profiles, please send me a comment. 

I have not seen any papers directly measuring COX-2 in autism, but there are a great number on the related regulation of the immune system which show large differences between autism and control subjects.  Polymorphisms in the genes responsible for COX-2 have been found to be highly transmitted in the autism population.  I’ve been having some problems identifying the impact of this particular allele on circulating levels of COX-2.  One study on colorectal cancer seemed to indicate a protective effect from the allele, which would seemingly be at odds with a inflammation promoter.  Anyways, if anyone has any knowledge on this, please send it my direction. 

Also interest here, though I am having problems articulating the precise issue, is that IL1 or prostaglins did not result altered responses.  This, to me, could potentially speak towards a preferential training of the Toll Like Receptors, as opposed to a downstream functional area. 

Neonatal infection-induced memory impairment after lipopolysaccharide in adulthood is prevented via caspase-1 inhibition

We have reported that neonatal infection leads to memory impairment after an immune challenge in adulthood. Here we explored whether events occurring as a result of early infection alter the response to a subsequent immune challenge in adult rats, which may then impair memory.In experiment 1, peripheral infection with Escherichia coli on postnatal day 4 increased cytokines and corticosterone in the periphery, and cytokine and microglial cell marker gene expression in the hippocampus of neonate pups. Next, rats treated neonatally with E. coli or PBS were injected in adulthood with lipopolysaccharide (LPS) or saline and killed 1-24 h later. Microglial cell marker mRNA was elevated in hippocampus in saline controls infected as neonates. Furthermore, LPS induced a greater increase in glial cell marker mRNA in hippocampus of neonatally infected rats, and this increase remained elevated at 24 h versus controls. After LPS, neonatally infected rats exhibited faster increases in interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta) within the hippocampus and cortex and a prolonged response within the cortex. There were no group differences in peripheral cytokines or corticosterone. In experiment 2, rats treated neonatally with E. coli or PBS received as adults either saline or a centrally administered caspase-1 inhibitor, which specifically prevents the synthesis of IL-1beta, 1 h before a learning event and subsequent LPS challenge. Caspase-1 inhibition completely prevented LPS-induced memory impairment in neonatally infected rats. These data implicate IL-1beta in the set of immune/inflammatory events that occur in the brain as a result of neonatal infection, which likely contribute to cognitive alterations in adulthood.

Another instances where the authors used inflammatory inhibitors to obtain evidence that the behavioral outcomes were dependent on the immune response by administering inflammatory inhibitors. And again, we see drastic differences in behavior and immune response between animals that had an immune response early in life, and those that did not. This looks to be part of a multiple paper study, the initial paper can be found here.  Increased levels of IL-1beta have not been observed in children with autism; though some researchers have found that in response to LPS, children with autism produce more IL-1Beta than their non diagnosed counterparts.

Early-life immune challenge: defining a critical window for effects on adult responses to immune challenge

It was titles like this that really got my head spinning early on when I started to realize just how much information there was on this subject.

Many aspects of mammalian physiology are functionally immature at birth and continue to develop throughout at least the first few weeks of life. Animals are therefore vulnerable during this time to environmental influences such as stress and challenges to the immune system that may permanently affect adult function. The adult immune system is uniquely sensitive to immune challenges encountered during the neonatal period, but it is unknown where the critical window for this programming lies. We subjected male Sprague-Dawley rats at postnatal day (P)7, P14, P21, and P28 to either a saline or lipopolysaccharide (LPS) injection and examined them in adulthood for differences in responses to a further LPS injection. Adult febrile and cyclooxygenase-2 responses to LPS were attenuated in rats given LPS at P14 and P21, but not in those treated at P7 or P28, while P7-LPS rats displayed lower adult body weights than those treated at other times. P28-LPS rats also tended to display enhanced anxiety in the elevated plus maze. In further experiments, we examined maternal-pup interactions, looking at the mothers’ preference in two pup-retrieval tasks, and found no differences in maternal attention to LPS-treated pups. We therefore demonstrate a ‘critical window’ for the effects of a neonatal immune challenge on adult febrile responses to inflammation and suggest that there are other critical time points during development for the programming of adult physiology.

If you believe in reincarnation, I wonder just how bad a person you need to be in order to wake up as a Sprague-Dawley rat the next time?  Anyways, here we can see different results depending on the timeframe of immune activation.  And again, we see modifications to immune system regulation and behaviors. 

Early life immune challenge–effects on behavioural indices of adult rat fear and anxiety

Neonatal exposure to an immune challenge has been shown to alter many facets of adult physiology including fever responses to a similar infection. However, there is a paucity of information regarding its effects on adult behavioursMale Sprague-Dawley rats were administered a single injection of the bacterial endotoxin lipopolysaccharide (LPS) at 14 days old and were compared, when they reached adulthood, with neonatally saline-treated controls in several behavioural tests of unconditioned fear and anxiety. There was no effect of the neonatal treatment on performance in either the elevated plus maze, modified Porsolt’s forced swim test or the open field test. However, neonatally LPS-treated rats did show significantly reduced exploration of novel objects introduced to the open field arena, indicating an effect of the neonatal immune challenge on behaviours relating to anxiety in the adult.

Here, we see that early life exposure to endtoxin was seen to alter behaviors, including reduced exploration, indicative of increased anxiety. 

Long-term disorders of behavior in rats induced by administration of tumor necrosis factor during early postnatal ontogenesis

Another great title! In this case, the authors used straight tnf alpha and observed ‘long term disorders of behavior’. For our particular subset of children, who have been shown to create tnf alpha at highly exaggerated rates compared to their non diagnosed peers, the triggering mechanism has particular salience. 

 Early-life infection leads to altered BDNF and IL-1beta mRNA expression in rat hippocampus following learning in adulthood

By this point, the hows of what they did are probably pretty straightforward. Snipped from the abstract:

Taken together, these data indicate that early infection strongly influences the induction of IL-1beta and BDNF within distinct regions of the hippocampus, which likely contribute to observed memory impairments in adulthood.

Early-life exposure to endotoxin alters hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal function and predisposition to inflammation

This is the oldest paper I have come across so far, published in 2000.

We have investigated whether exposure to Gram-negative bacterial endotoxin in early neonatal life can alter neuroendocrine and immune regulation in adult animals. Exposure of neonatal rats to a low dose of endotoxin resulted in long-term changes in hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis activity, with elevated mean plasma corticosterone concentrations that resulted from increased corticosterone pulse frequency and pulse amplitude. In addition to this marked effect on the development of the HPA axis, neonatal endotoxin exposure had long-lasting effects on immune regulation, including increased sensitivity of lymphocytes to stress-induced suppression of proliferation and a remarkable protection from adjuvant-induced arthritis. These findings demonstrate a potent and long-term effect of neonatal exposure to inflammatory stimuli that can program major changes in the development of both neuroendocrine and immunological regulatory mechanisms.

On the basis of our data, it does appear, however, that activation of endocrine and immune systems during neonatal development can program or “reset” functional development of both the endocrine and immune systems. In this respect it is noteworthy that exposure to steroids during immunization schedules in early life can alter the development of immune tolerance, and that animals raised in pathogen-free environments have increased susceptibility to inflammatory disease (20, 29–31). The environment in which a mammal develops is often the environment in which it must survive throughout life, and developmental plasticity must surely be of adaptive advantage. We suggest that “immune environments” during development not only can alter inflammatory and neuroendocrine responses throughout life but also may alter predisposition to stress-related pathologies associated with HPA activation.

There are some other papers out there that have failed to find a relationship between early life immune activation and subsequent HPA axis modulations.

Neonatal inflammation produces selective behavioural deficits and alters N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor subunit mRNA in the adult rat brain

Thus, a single bout of inflammation during development can programme specific and persistent differences in NR mRNA subunit expression in the hippocampus, which could be associated with behavioural and cognitive deficits in adulthood.

The author reports highly variable NMDA expression changes in animals tested over a variety of timeframes. Changes to NMDA receptors have been reported in autism, as well as in animals treated prenatally with valporic acid; which has been shown to greatly increase risk of autism diagnosis.

Neonatal immune challenge exacerbates experimental colitis in adult rats: potential role for TNF-alpha

Four days after TNBS treatment, plasma corticosterone was unaltered in all groups; however, TNF-alpha was significantly increased in adult TNBS-treated rats that had LPS as neonates compared with all other groups. In conclusion, neonatal, but not later, exposure to LPS produces long-term exacerbations in the development of colitis in adults.This change is independent of HPA axis activation 4 days after TNBS treatment but is associated with increased circulating TNF-alpha, suggestive of an exaggerated immune response in adults exposed to neonatal infection

Again, we see tnf alpha implicated as a mediating factor; in this case, animals treated with LPS during development went on to develop much more severe colitis symptoms when drug induced. These changes were only apparent if the immune insult occurred during a specific timeframe.  An increased baseline level of tnf alpha is also something that has been observed in the autism population. 

 Neonatal programming of the rat neuroimmune response: stimulus specific changes elicited by bacterial and viral mimetics 

Here, researchers performed an experiment to determine if immune stimulants other than LPS could generate ‘neonatal programming of the rat neuroimmune response’, so they used PolyIC; a viral protein analog during early life.  What was observed was that animals treated on postnatal day 14 showed attenuated febrile responses into adulthood, coinciding with altered corticosteroid responses.  Concurrent administration of a corticosteroid receptor blocker caused observed abnormalities to dissipate.  Very interestingly, they also observed that a mixed early life, adulthood challenge did not result in the observed differences; i.e., if an animal got a PolyIC immune stimulant in infancy, and an LPS stimulation in adulthood, no changes from saline animals were seen.  To me, this speaks again towards a specific training of the toll like receptors as the detection of viral proteins and consequent immune activation is handled by TLR-3, while the same job duties are handled by TLR-4 for bacterial proteins (i.e., LPS). 

Neonatal bacterial endotoxin challenge interacts with stress in the adult male rat to modify KLH specific antibody production but not KLH stimulated ex vivo cytokine release

While postnatal bacterial infection is capable of inducing a variety of long lasting functional alterations in immune function, the specific physiological pathways responsible for this modification are largely unknown. In the current investigation we explore the hypothesis that early life exposure to endotoxin permanently modifies the function of T helper (Th) cell activity. Therefore we examined Th-cell regulated in vivo humoral and ex vivo cellular responses to keyhole limpet hemocyanin (KLH). Given that stress has been shown to exacerbate some of the immunological alterations exhibited by the neonatally endotoxin challenged adult, we examined the adult’s Th1/Th2 responses to KLH under conditions of no stress, acute stress (2 daysx2 h), and chronic stress (7 daysx2 h). Our results demonstrate that adults neonatally challenged with endotoxin were found to produce significantly less IgG1 following KLH challenge following acute stress (p<0.05). Neonatally endotoxin treated animals exposed to acute stress were also found to produce less IgM than saline or endotoxin treated animals exposed to no-stress or chronic stress. No neonatal treatment group differences observed in the production of INF-gamma or IL-4 in adulthood. In summary, the results from the present study provide little evidence to directly support the hypothesis that neonatal endotoxin exposure significantly alters the Th1/Th2 balance in adulthood

This is a nice touch because the researchers mixed the exposure of acute stress with early life immune activation.  There are many studies on increased levels of biomarkers of stress in autism, and, it just so happens, children with autism have been shown to have decreased levels of IgG1 and IgM when compared to children without a diagnosis.  Other cytokine measurements were unchanged. 

There are other papers available with similar findings, but this set is a large chunk of what is out there.   Our summarization is as follows:

  • 12 studies showing  analyzing the effect of early life immune activation on rodents with findings into adulthood on behavior differences, seizure susceptibility, colitis susceptibility, HPA Axis modifications, and immune system changes. 
  • 1 study observed behavioral results from administration of tnf alpha alone.  (Zubareva OE, 2009)
  • 1 study observed physiological results from administration of tnf alpha alone. (Galic, 2008)
  • 3 studies used inflammatory inhibitors to validate the immune response was responsible for the physiological changes (seizure susceptibility), behavioral changes (memory impairments), and immune function.  (Galic, 2008, Ellis 2006,  Bilbo 2005).
  • 2 studies found that the timing of the immune activation was a mediating factor in causing persistent changes (Spencer, 2006, Galic, 2008).
  • 7 studies found persistent changes to the immune system.  (Boisse, 2004, Spencer 2006, Bilbo 2008, Shanks 2000, Spencer 2007, Ellis 2006, Walker 2009).
  • 1 study finding changes to brain receptor structures.  (Harre 2008).
  • 3 studies finding increased anxiety and / or fear responses.  (Zubareva 2009, Spencer 2006, Spencer 2005

In developing some of these ideas online, I ran into several arguments as to why we these findings have no bearing on our existing research into vaccination taking into consideration the a time dependent effect of immune activation.   Below, as near as I can remember, is a cataloging of these complaints, and my take on their validity, and in what ways the studies above provide information. 

1) Vaccines are already tested for safety and efficacy. 

Technically a true statement, but one that very quietly attempts to substitute safety testing for evaluation of autism.  Most of the safety studies, even those that follow participants for several years, are not designed to capture either neurological outcomes like autism, or more subtle changes such as persistent changes to immune system markers.  For verification of this, all one really needs to do is take a look at what happened in reality, and apply a primitive logical filter.  When it was posited that the MMR might be causing autism in some children, there was a flurry of retrospective studies performed on children who did or did not get the MMR.  Whatever your position on the quality of those studies, the fact is, those studies were necessary only because the existing set of safety and efficacy studies were not sufficient to answer the question of if there was an association with the MMR and autism.   In other words, why bother with retrospective studies if the existing literature already had evidence of no link? 

As for testing of immune system changes, you will be very hard pressed to find studies on the existing vaccine schedule for children that takes into consideration pre and post cytokine or related immunological measurements.  If anyone has any studies that I haven’t seen (which is two), please let me know.   One that I have found, Modulation of the infant immune responses by the first pertussis vaccine administrations has some rather startling findings. 

Many efforts are currently made to prepare combined vaccines against most infectious pathogens, that may be administered early in life to protect infants against infectious diseases as early as possible. However, little is known about the general immune modulation induced by early vaccination. Here, we have analyzed the cytokine secretion profiles of two groups of 6-month-old infants having received as primary immunization either a whole-cell (Pw) or an acellular (Pa) pertussis vaccine in a tetravalent formulation of pertussis–tetanus–diphtheria-poliomyelitis vaccines. Both groups of infants secreted IFN-γ in response to the Bordetella pertussis antigens filamentous haemagglutinin and pertussis toxin, and this response was correlated with antigen-specific IL-12p70 secretion, indicating that both pertussis vaccines induced Th1 cytokines. However, Pa recipients also developed a strong Th2-type cytokine response to the B. pertussis antigens, as noted previously. In addition, they induced Th2-type cytokines to the co-administrated antigen tetanus toxoïd, as well as to the food antigen beta-lactoglobulin. Furthermore, the general cytokine profile of the Pa recipients was strongly Th2-skewed at 6 months, as indicated by the cytokines induced by the mitogen phytohaemagglutinin. These data demonstrate that the cytokine profile of 6-month-old infants is influenced by the type of formulation of the pertussis vaccine they received at 2, 3 and 4 months of life. Large prospective studies would be warranted to evaluate the possible long-term consequences of this early modulation of the cytokine responses in infants.


Now this doesn’t mean that DTaP causes autism, but it does tell us that we are largely operating based on our findings of reduced disease and empirical measurements of seriopositivity, as opposed to a true understanding of all of the effects of vaccination; this study was conducted eight years after DTaP was licensed for use.   Clearly our existing set of safety and efficacy tests for DTaP were not sufficiently designed to capture this kind of information.  If anyone tells you that have the slightest fucking clue as to the result of such cytokine shifts in a generation of infants, you are being lied to.  This study also casts a relatively poor light on argument 3. 

Strength of argument: Zero. 

2) The vaccination hypothesis cannot explain X characteristic of autism.  (Where X is a ‘characterization’ of autism, such as improved spatial skills)

What this argument really says is that the person making cannot imagine a way in which characteristic X could be caused by vaccination, and therefore, the hypothesis is invalid.  Of course, of the few accepted causes of autism, such as prenatal exposure to ruebella, there is also no well defined mechanism by which such an event could lead to most of the characteristics that this argument utilizes.  An even biggest problem with this argument is that it mandates that every person with autism has characteristic X, when in fact, autism is characterized in part by large heterogeneousness.  And if we were to expand our premise from, ‘vaccines may cause autism through early life immune activation’, to, ‘autism may modify the behavioral or immune system functioning through early life immune activation’, this argument falls to complete irrelevancy without making our existing set of research any more robust.

Strength of argument: One.

3)  Infants are bombarded with antigens all the time and their immune system is not overwhelmed.  Vaccination is no different. 

Again, this argument starts with a kernel of technical truth; infants are forced to deal wifth a variety of bacterial and viral antigens from the moment they are born.   However, in the first place, the simplest commonsense logical tests tell us that there is a big difference between ‘everyday exposure’ and the contents of a vial.  For starters, your child comes equipped with an array of defense mechanisms to keep bacteria and viruses outside of their bodies, namely the skin, mucous, tears, and gastric acid.  When we use a needle to penetrate the skin and inject the antigens into the tissue, all of these natural defense barriers are immediately bypassed.  Secondly, the antigens in a vaccine aren’t alone; they come with aluminum based salts that are designed to enhance the immediate innate immune response.  Funny enough, the mechanism by which these chemicals achieve their function is still under investigation, but they are absolutely necessaray for a vaccine to initiate a sufficient immune response for the body to develop antibodies.   If we simply evaluate what regulatory agencies tell us; that low (or high) grade fevers are a common side effect of vaccination, between 5% and 30% of the time depending on the vaccine, we are forced to acknowledge that our children do not develop fevers anywhere close to the same frequency.  Or, we can look at the DTP / DTaP study above, where we observed highly differential immune profiles between different vaccines.  If all of the thousands or millions of antigens these children were exposed to in the intervening months were having a meaningful impact, it should have been impossible to identify one group from another; and yet, the different profiles were strikingly clear.   If everyday exposure is equivalent, how can we resolve these seemingly paradoxical findings? 

Strength of argument:  Three.  Even though vaccination is very different, the strawman argument of an ‘overwhelmed immune system’ is nicely defeated by this argument.   In our studies above that dealt with observed immune system alterations, however, it is not an “overwhelming” of anything that was observed, but rather, a persistent modulation with wide ranging effects. 

There are several frequent answers to these counter arguments.

3a) Just because you  sometimes have a fever after vaccination doesn’t mean your immune system isn’t activated the rest of the time. 

Again technically true, but it leaves out the fact that a fever indicates a more robust immune response.  Any effect that is dependent on the relative strength of  immune activation forces us to conclude that  we cannot draw equivalencies between normal immune system activation and what happens when you get a vaccine.  We can consider all of the animals from the studies above for insight; they were all exposed to plenty of bacteria on their own, they were rats after all; and yet, only those that received LPS, PolyIC, or tnf-alpha were seen to have changes.  In other words, if common immune system activation was sufficient to cause differential effects, with all of that background immune activation  there should have been no ability to tell which animals were in the treatment group.  And again, we can refer to the DTP/DTaP study for insight as to our ability to discern vaccine exposure and everyday exposure with measures beyond single pathogen seriopositivity.

3b) The immune response generated by the actual diseases are far more robust than that from vaccination.  Considering this, it is even more important to vaccinate children earlier.

If one of the concerns we have applies to the timing of the immune response, this answer is only sensible if we had a reasonable expectation that an infant  will become infected with diptheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis b, rotavirus, haemophilus influenza, and/or polio by the age of two months, and again at four and six months of age.   While such a situation would no doubt have very poor outcomes for the child in question, the chances of any one of these things happening is very low.  On the other hand, the chances of an infant having an immune response initiated via vaccination at this age is approaching 100%.   Furthermore, this argument is frequently based on duration of response (a measure of bacterial or viral persistence, as opposed to strength of response), but several of the studies above found that a single, transient immune activation was sufficient to cause differences into adulthood. 

4) None of the studies above test vaccination. (sometimes coupled with: they test exposure to LPS)

Whatever the trigger, there is only one innate immune system to generate a response, and the gatekeepers of the immune response, the toll like receptors, are the components responsible for initiating the innate immune response be it by vaccination or wild bacterial/viral exposure.  It should be noted that there are times when both arguments 3 and 4 will be used nearly simultaneously.  For anyone concerned with an over reliance on LPS, we have several studies where viral analogs were used, and others where straight tnf-alpha achieved similar results.   Likewise, we have three studies showing that the use of inflammatory inhibitors resulted in amelioration of effects; strong evidence that the trigger of the immune response is relatively unimportant compared to the immune response itself. 

None the less, this argument has some validity in that it is difficult to compare the immunological strength of the response between dosages of LPS, PolyIC, and tnf-alpha with what happens after standard childhood immunizations.  Unfortunately, the reason such a comparison is impossible to perform is that we have no values to use as comparisons from the end of vaccination.   If someone could provide a study showing pre- and post- cytokine levels after common childhood vaccinations, please post a link.   Even with our studies that tell us that children with autism have a tendency to respond more vigorously to immune stimulants than their non diagnosed peers, this is a large unknown.  It would be very tricky to capture excellent in vivo comparison information here, as it would require injecting infants with LPS in order to gauge the immune response; there are all kinds of problems with that.  Animal models and in vitro may be the only options available. 

Strength of argument:  Five. 

 5) Humans grew up in dirty environments; they were exposed to viruses and bacteria all the time.  What is different about the most recent generation than the thousands of generations past?

 This is a pretty strong argument, after all, in general, conditions in the past were, generally, germier than they are now.  The issue, to my mind, is that even with a dirtier past, our actions have skewed what was once a distribution.  We have taken efforts to insure that every infant gets a robust immune response, and earlier in life; as opposed to what used to be some infants.  In other words, even if there was a fifty percent chance of a two month old having generated a strong immune activation in generations past, the chances are now much closer to one hundred percent.  The same thing happens at four months, and six months.  With the insane well meaning introduction of the Hep-B vaccine at the day of birth, this radical alteration to this distribution is unmistakable.  Part of the problem with gauging this argument is that there seems to be a wide range of ‘average’ infections reported in infants during their first year of life; with ranges from 0 – 12; and even with these, it is impossible to get a measure of the strength of the response.   Our ability to understand what the average was just a few generations ago completely futile. 

There are also large problems with drawing equivalencies between the other components of the environment of previous generations and the current generation. 

Strength of argument:  Seven. 

6) The model is wrong, there is just too much difference between human and rat physiology to be worried. 

The strongest contributor to this argument is uncertainty in our ability to accurately interpret the jump from prenatal to postnatal immune activation between rodents and humans.  But again, this is driven in large part by a relative paucity of information as opposed to a deeper understanding of the differences between the two.  After all, any amount of intellectual honesty tells us that the researchers in the experiments above are not overly concerned over the question as to if rats develop immune system differences into adulthood following early development immune activation; these experiments are being funded and performed because there are things to be learned about human physiology from the results.  To put another way, if researchers and funding agencies were confident that there was no way the same transient inflammatory episodes could have similar effects on people, would any of these studies actually been funded or performed?  The effect size also speaks towards the complexity of  going from rodent to humans. 

Strength of argument: Eight.  There is a real chance that all of the effects observed here in rodent models only have experiments to pre-natal exposures in humans.  Likewise, it is acknowledged that the rodent model is useful in many areas but that  frequency that results that look good in rodents and then poor in people, is very large.  Unfortunately, to my mind, this does not constitute evidence of lack of effect of our vaccination schedule, just one reason why it might not be having an effect.  It is the assumption of no effect, as opposed to the presence of quality analysis.

I’ve never actually had this argument made to me, strangely enough, but it does strike me as a very large question mark. 


The fact that these experimentsare being carried out at all, with the findings being described as novel, should be enough to tell us that for all practical purposes, we still are gaining an understanding of the effects of early life immune activation, some twenty years after we began to aggressively increase the number of vaccines our infants receive.  Just because the effects that were observed are sometimes very subtle does not mean that they cannot have profound ramifications, and if our existing analysis was not designed to capture subtle effects, drawing far reaching conclusions from them is worthless, and indeed, potentially dangerous.

With that in mind, is it possible to have a rational discussion about the possibilities of finding ways to gain more insight into the potential outcomes of earlier and more vaccination without invoking vitriole, charges of scientific illiteracy, the big pharma gambit or accusations of child abuse? 

– pD

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