Immune activation in pregnant mice affects offspring, potential implications for neurodevelopmental disorders

A brief kick to the immune system of a pregnant mouse can cause persistent changes in the brains of the offspring, according to new research from the University of California, Davis, Center for Neuroscience.

The findings may help researchers better understand the causes of such as schizophrenia and autism, and could point to new ways of preventing the conditions. A paper on the work is published online in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

Kimberley McAllister, professor at the Center for Neuroscience and departments of Neurology, and , Physiology and Behavior, and her colleagues dosed with a chemical, poly (I:C), which mimics a viral infection. They then measured the levels of 23 different cytokines in the brains of the offspring after they were born.

Cytokines are immune-signaling molecules that come into play as the body mounts defenses against infections and other triggers. Cytokines also appear to play a role in normal brain development after birth.

Throughout postnatal development and into adulthood, the mice showed distinct patterns of cytokines in several . These patterns differed from the patterns seen in the offspring of untreated mice. (The researchers did not find evidence of inflammation in the animals' brains.)

As seen in earlier experiments by others, the offspring of treated mice did show changes in behavior consistent with animal models of autism and schizophrenia.

It's known that when a mother's immune system responds to a virus or other trigger, cytokines cross the into the offspring, McAllister said. Previously, this had been shown to happen only around the time of infection.

The researchers had expected to see high levels of cytokines in the brains of treated mice. They were surprised to find that, during the time of greatest after birth, the brains of treated mice had lower cytokine levels than those of untreated mice.

"We showed there are changes in immune-signaling molecules in the mother that are sustained in the offspring," McAllister said. "Remarkably, the direction of change in these proteins is opposite to what was expected."

Judy Van de Water, a professor at the UC Davis MIND Institute who studies the role of the immune system in neurodevelopmental disorders, said it was an interesting discovery that called for further investigation.

"It's clear that maternal immune responses can affect both the developing brain and immune system of offspring, but there are likely additional risk factors that predispose to such responses resulting in autism or schizophrenia," she said.

If cytokine changes are found to play a role in neurodevelopmental disorders, it might be possible to target these to restore typical brain development.

Related Stories

Immune molecule regulates brain connections

Feb 27, 2011

The number of connections between nerve cells in the brain can be regulated by an immune system molecule, according to a new study from UC Davis. The research, published Feb. 27 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, reveal ...

Recommended for you

Student seeks to improve pneumonia vaccines

13 hours ago

Almost a million Americans fall ill with pneumonia each year. Nearly half of these cases require hospitalization, and 5-7 percent are fatal. Current vaccines provide protection against some strains of the ...

Seabed solution for cold sores

14 hours ago

The blue blood of abalone, a seabed delicacy could be used to combat common cold sores and related herpes virus following breakthrough research at the University of Sydney.

Better living through mitochondrial derived vesicles

Aug 19, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—As principal transformers of bacteria, organelles, synapses, and cells, vesicles might be said to be the stuff of life. One need look no further than the rapid rise to prominence of The ...

Zebrafish help to unravel Alzheimer's disease

Aug 19, 2014

New fundamental knowledge about the regulation of stem cells in the nerve tissue of zebrafish embryos results in surprising insights into neurodegenerative disease processes in the human brain. A new study by scientists at ...

User comments