The Link Between Autism and Inflammation

The number of children diagnosed with autism is continuing to rise and factors such as chronic inflammation have been identified as one type of health issue that may contribute to the onset of this condition.

In particular, research suggests that women with certain inflammatory diseases have an increased risk of having children with autism. These findings were discovered through studies that measured the levels of specific pro-inflammatory proteins in expectant mothers. 

One such protein is called C-reactive protein (CRP), which is a well-known marker for inflammation. One particular study that followed the outcomes of over 1 million pregnancies showed that pregnant women with very high levels of CRP had a 43% increased risk of having a baby with autism in comparison to women with low CRP levels [1].

Additional studies also started to demonstrate that expectant mothers who were diagnosed with inflammatory conditions such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, celiac disease, and rheumatoid arthritis are a greater risk of having babies who are born with autism.

According to this type of research, women with these forms of autoimmune diseases may produce anti-brain antibodies that can attack the brain tissue of an unborn infant [2, 3]. The subsequent brain tissue damage can lead to long-term health problems as well as the development of disorders such as autism [3]. 

The presence of inflammation continues to be a factor that negatively affects those with autism during childhood [3, 4]. Brain imaging studies involving autism frequently show that inflammation is widespread throughout the brain.

Elevated levels of inflammatory proteins that are similar to those produced due to autoimmune disorders (e.g. celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis) are also typically observed in the brain of autistic patients [4, 5]. Children with autism also have higher levels of inflammatory proteins in the blood and spinal fluid [6, 7]. 

In addition to the presence of inflammatory proteins, an overactive immune system also appears to contribute to the progression of autism. This is because an exaggerated immune response leads to the rapid production of hormones that activate specific cells in the brain that attack foreign invaders.

Unfortunately, when the immune system is overactive in this way, it causes chronic inflammation that can begin to damage various cells, including those in the brain. When this occurs, behavioral and cognitive changes that are characteristic of autism may begin to develop or worsen [7]. 

Seizures, which occur in a significant number of individuals with autism, also appear to be linked to brain tissue inflammation [8].

In view of the large role that inflammation may play in autism, strategies that target inflammation are a key area that needs to continuously be explored through scientific and clinical research.

Many different nutritional strategies have been shown to help combat inflammation. Studies have demonstrated that an anti-inflammatory diet, as well as targeted nutrient supplementation may be highly effective.

To learn more about how you can implement dietary strategies to improve inflammation, join us in the Nutrition Intervention for Autism and ADHD Online Program.

References

  1. Brown AS, Sourander A, et al. Elevated maternal C-reactive protein and autism in a national birth cohort. Mol Psychiatry. 2014;19(2):259-64. 
  2. Brimberg L, Sadiq A, et al. Brain-reactive IgG correlates with autoimmunity in mothers of a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Mol Psychiatry. 2013;18(11):1171-7.
  3. Fox E, Amaral D, Van de Water J. Maternal and fetal antibrain antibodies in development and disease. Dev Neurobiol. 2012;72(10):1327-34. 
  4. Croonenberghs J, Bosmans E, Deboutte D, Kenis G, Maes M. Activation of the inflammatory response system in autism. Neuropsychobiology. 2002; 45(1):1-6.
  5. Li X, Chauhan A, Sheikh AM, et al. Elevated immune response in the brain of autistic patients. J Neuroimmunol. 2009;207(1-2):111-6. 
  6. Molloy CA, Morrow AL, Meinzen-Derr J, et al. Elevated cytokine levels in children with autism spectrum disorder. J Neuroimmunol. 2006; 172(1-2):198-205.
  7. Ashwood P, Wakefield AJ. Immune activation of peripheral blood and mucosal CD3+ lymphocyte cytokine profiles in children with autism and gastrointestinal symptoms. J Neuroimmunol. 2006; 173(1-2):126-34.
  8. Clarke DF, Roberts W, et al. The prevalence of autistic spectrum disorder in children surveyed in a tertiary care epilepsy clinic. Epilepsia. 2005;46(12):1970-7.

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