Autism risk may be linked to mother’s microbiome health

Written by Olivia Stevenson, Future Science Group

Researchers from the University of Virginia School of Medicine (VA, USA) have revealed that the microbiome of a pregnant mother could determine the risk of autism, as well as other neurodevelopmental disorders in their offspring.
It is possible to alter the microbiome by changing dietary habits, and this could therefore be used to prevent autism development. The results of this study may also provide a new way of detecting autism in early pregnancy.

The microbiome is the collection of microscopic organisms that live inside humans and other animals, and can have far-reaching impacts on overall health. However, the link between the mother’s microbiome health and the healthy development of her offspring is still not fully understood.

In this study, published recently in the Journal of Immunology, the researchers investigated the development of autism-like symptoms in mice. The inflammatory molecule IL-17a is produced by the immune system. The researchers blocked production of IL-17a in pregnant mice, and this prevented the development of neurodevelopmental disorders.

The team determined that IL-17a was a key contributor to the development of autism-like symptoms in laboratory mice. IL-17a may also be feasible as a biomarker for pre-natal autism diagnosis.

Blocking IL-17a production in a pregnant mother could be a method of preventing the development of autism in their offspring, however IL-17a is useful in fighting infection, so this may not yet be viable.

“If you think about pregnancy, the body is basically accepting foreign tissue, which is a baby,” said lead researcher John Lukens (University of Virginia). “As a result, maintenance of embryonic health demands a complex balance of immune regulation, so people tend to shy away from manipulating the immune system during pregnancy.”

Improving the health of a mother’s microbiome could potentially be a simple way of lowering the risk of offspring developing autism. The microbiome can be modified easily; by changing diet, taking probiotic supplements or even fecal transplant.

The researchers plan to study other immune molecules, as they anticipate that IL-17a is just one of many molecules that may be linked to autism.

“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,” concluded Lukens. “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.”

Sources: Lammert CR, Frost EL, Bolte AC et al. Cutting edge: critical roles for microbiota-mediated regulation of the immune system in a prenatal immune activation model of autism. J. Immunol. 201(2), doi: (2018);

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