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Autism linked to 'anti-brain' antibodies in first large-scale study

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Autoimmune antibodies linked to autism in first large study.

In a study of more than 2,700 mothers, researchers have linked autism to antibodies from mothers. The finding suggests there could be an autoimmunity component that causes ASD.

The investigation that was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry found one in 10 mothers have antibodies in their body that react with their baby's brains but have no impact on the health of the mother because the antibodies can't cross the maternal blood-brain barrier.

Dr. Betty Diamond, head of the Center for Autoimmune and Musculoskeletal Disorders at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Long Island, New York who led the study said in a press release, the large sampling of women in the study "..gives a clearer impression of the prevalence of these antibodies.”

The research suggests a mother's autoimmune antibodies could play a role in autism because the brain of a fetus doesn't 'filter' antibodies that could attack brain cells.

The underdeveloped brain of a fetus could allow “anti-brain” antibodies to pass through to the babies’ brain, the finding suggests.

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The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, Inc. (AARDA) notes that 50 million American suffer from some form of autoimmune disease and 75 percent are women.

The finding is the first large-scale study to associate autoimmunity - a condition that develops when the body's immune cells mistakenly attack healthy organs and cells - to autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The study authors tested women's plasma for antibodies for their discovery.

The results showed:

  • Mothers of a child with autism were four times more likely to have anti-brain antibodies compared to other women of child-bearing age
  • There was an 8.8% prevalence of anti-brain antibodies in the mothers of families studied from the The Autism Genetic Resource Exchange
  • Fifty-three percent of mothers with anti-brain antibodies also had anti-nuclear autoantibodies compared to 13.4% of mothers without the anti-brain antibodies who had an ASD child and 15% of control women of child-bearing age.

Mothers in the study who had an ASD child and brain-reactive antibodies were also more likely to have an autoimmune disorder such as rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).

The authors wrote: "This study provides robust evidence that brain-reactive antibodies are increased in mothers of an ASD child and may be associated with autoimmunity." The finding suggests it might be important to study the association between mother's antibodies and autism further.