The risk of developing autism-spectrum disorders is determined by the mother’s microbiome – the collection of microorganisms that naturally live inside us – during pregnancy, new research from the University of Virginia School of Medicine suggests. The work raises the possibility that preventing forms of autism could be as simple as an expectant mom modifying her diet or taking custom probiotics.

Further, the UVA scientists were able to use their discovery to prevent the development of autism-like neurodevelopmental disorders in lab mice. They found they could halt the development of such disorders by blocking a particular inflammatory molecule produced by the immune system. Targeting this molecule, interleukin-17a, offers another potential avenue for preventing autism in people, the researchers say. They caution, however, that this approach would be much more complex because of the risk of side effects.

“We determined that the microbiome is a key contributor in determining susceptibility [to autism-like disorders], so it suggests that you could target either the maternal microbiome or this inflammatory molecule, IL-17a,” said lead researcher John Lukens of UVA’s Department of Neuroscience. “You could also use this [IL-17a] as a biomarker for early diagnosis.”

Microbiome and Autism

The groundbreaking work from Lukens and his colleagues sheds light on the complex relationship between the health of the mother’s microbiome and the healthy development of her children.

“The microbiome can shape the developing brain in multiple ways,” explained Lukens, of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia and UVA’s Carter Immunology Center. “The microbiome is really important to the calibration of how the offspring’s immune system is going to respond to an infection or injury or stress.”

But an unhealthy microbiome in the mother can create problems: Lukens’ work shows that it can make her unborn offspring susceptible to neurodevelopmental disorders. The researchers found that the IL-17a molecule was a key contributor to the development of autism-like symptoms in lab mice.

The good news: The microbiome can be modified easily, either through diet, probiotic supplements or fecal transplant. All of these approaches seek to restore a healthy equilibrium among the different microorganisms that live in the gut – although researchers cannot yet offer specific dietary recommendations.

“In terms of translating our work to humans, I think the next big step would be to identify features of the microbiome in pregnant mothers that correlate with autism risk,” Lukens said. “I think the really important thing is to figure out what kind of things can be used to modulate the microbiome in the mother as effectively and safely as we can.”

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