Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition characterized by impaired social interaction, behavioral problems, and poor communication. The disorder typically manifests in early childhood and is slightly more common among boys than girls. Roughly one in 54 people living in the United States has ASD. Findings from a new study suggest that maternal immune activation during pregnancy increases the severity of ASD in offspring.
Maternal immune activation due to autoimmune disorders, asthma, or allergies switches on the activity of inflammatory pathways and proinflammatory molecules. Many of these molecules can cross the blood–brain barrier and the placenta, potentially disrupting fetal development. Elevated levels of these proinflammatory molecules have been found at birth or during development in some people with ASD – a finding that has been linked with increased severity of symptoms.
The study involved 363 children who were enrolled in the Autism Phenome Project or the Girls with Autism Imaging of Neurodevelopment studies, along with their mothers. The authors of the study assessed children’s behavioral and emotional problems and reviewed the mothers' pregnancy histories.
They found that asthma was the most common immune condition among the mothers, but other conditions, including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis were reported as well. Roughly 20 percent of the mothers of male children with ASD had asthma. Maternal immune conditions were associated with increased behavioral and emotional problems but not cognitive function in both sexes.
These findings indicate that maternal immune conditions may influence the severity of ASD symptoms in offspring and the severity of these symptoms may vary between males and females. Although there is no cure for ASD, robust data demonstrate that sulforaphane, a bioactive compound derived from cruciferous vegetables, especially broccoli sprouts, may be beneficial in reducing many of the behavioral and emotions symptoms associated with the condition.
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