USF researchers to find solutions for fetal autism

A group of nine USF researchers hope to find a way to stop autism before it affects a fetal brain.

The researchers have been awarded $400,000 from the National Institute of Mental Health, a scientific organization whose research is geared toward focusing on the treatment of mental disorders, to conduct research on ways to protect fetal brain development from maternal infections, which can cause autism.

Maternal infections stem from a broad range of viral and bacterial infections, but for pregnant women, these infections can be particularly harmful to a fetus’ brain development.

Funding for the two-year study, which began in September and is still being conducted, was awarded in August to principal investigator Dr. Jun Tan, a professor at the Silver Child Development Center in USF’s Department of Psychiatry.

Ellisa Parker-Athill, a USF graduate student majoring in medical science, is apart of the research group and said that when infected, the body releases antibodies to help fight bacterium.

During pregnancy, these antibodies view a fetus as a foreign invader in the mother’s body.

“It is similar to a transplant rejection,” she said. “Sometimes the mother’s blood type and the fetus’ blood type do not match … The mom is looking at the fetus’ body as a foreign substance.”

Parker-Athill said an untreated infection could put the fetus in danger of developing various brain disorders, such as autism. Currently, 10 percent of autism cases are due to genetics, she said.

In summer 2009, Tan and his researching team conducted a study using pregnant mice. Two natural compounds, luteolin and diosmin were used to attempt to stop the maternal infection from causing harm to fetal brain development.

Of the two compounds, diosmin proved to be effective, Parker-Athill said.

“It managed to inhibit the signaling pathway that contributes to abnormal brain development,” Tan said.

Because diosmin is a natural compound that contains the same ingredients found in vegetables like broccoli, Tan said it is safe to consume. The compound has also been tested in European clinical trials as an anti-cancer treatment, he said.

Tan’s study first inflamed the pregnant mice with the disease and then treated them with diosmin. The newborn mice were then tested for autism. The study also tests the “important” role interleukin 6 (IL-6), a substance that can improve the body’s natural response to infection, plays in autism, he said.

Slight changes in the concentration of the IL-6 could affect fetal brain development, Parker-Athill said.

“The situation is analogous to how a slight change in salt concentration in a cooking recipe can change the recipe entirely,” she said. “The right amount is needed to make that recipe.”

The researchers hope the study determines whether IL-6 could be an early diagnostic tool for autism, she said.

“Thus far, there have only been behavioral markers for autism,” Tan said. “By having a biomarker, autism can be treated earlier.”

The study would shed new light on autism by attempting to treat the disease before it is contracted.

“At the end of the two-year study, if everything goes well, then we could propose a clinical trial,” Tan said. “This is just the beginning of the research. There is a potential for this becoming an effective treatment in the future.”