Does the brain become unglued in autism?

December 11, 2012

A new study published in Biological Psychiatry suggests that autism is associated with reductions in the level of cellular adhesion molecules in the blood, where they play a role in immune function.

Cell adhesion molecules are the glue that binds cells together in the body. Deficits in adhesion molecules would be expected to compromise processes at the interfaces between cells, influencing tissue integrity and cell-to-cell signaling. In the brain, deficits in adhesion molecules could compromise brain development and communication between .

Over the years, deficits in neural cell adhesion molecules have been implicated in schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. One adhesion molecule, , is strongly implicated in the heritable risk for autism.

Cell adhesion molecules also play a crucial role in regulating immune cell access to the central nervous system. Prior research provided evidence of immune system dysfunction in individuals diagnosed with (ASD). This led scientists from the University of California, Davis to examine whether adhesion molecules are altered in children with ASD.

To conduct the study, they recruited 2-4 year old children, 49 of whom were diagnosed with an ASD and 31 of whom were typically developing. They measured levels of multiple molecules, conducted behavioral assessments, and measured head circumference in all participants.

"For the first time, we show that levels of soluble sPECAM-1 and sP-selectin, two molecules that mediate leukocyte migration, are significantly decreased in young children with ASD compared with typically developing controls of the same age," explained the authors. "This finding is consistent with previous reports of decreased levels of both sPECAM-1 and sP-selectin in adults with high-functioning autism."

They also found that repetitive behavior scores and sPECAM-1 levels were associated in children with ASD. Repetitive, stereotyped behaviors are a typical feature of ASD and these data suggest a potential relationship between molecule levels and the severity of repetitive behaviors.

Finally, they also discovered that head circumference was associated with increased sPECAM-1 levels in the typically developing children, but not in the children with ASD. This indicates that perhaps sPECAM-1 plays a role in normal brain growth, as larger is a known feature of individuals with autism.

"The report of reductions in in blood in autism is interesting in light of recent genetic findings. However, the importance of these measurements remains somewhat uncertain," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of . "Our field continues to look for blood tests that might inform the diagnostic and treatment process."

Explore further: Eye-tracking reveals variability in successful social strategies for children with autism

More information: The article is "Levels of Soluble Platelet Endothelial Cell Adhesion Molecule-1 and P-Selectin Are Decreased in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder" by Charity E. Onore, Christine Wu Nordahl, Gregory S. Young, Judy A. Van de Water, Sally J. Rogers, and Paul Ashwood (doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.05.004). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 72, Issue 12 (December 15, 2012)

Related Stories

Holding a mirror to brain changes in autism

March 2, 2012

Impaired social function is a cardinal symptom of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). One of the brain circuits that enable us to relate to other people is the "mirror neuron" system. This brain circuit is activated when we ...

Recommended for you

Low glycemic index diet reduces symptoms of autism in mice

June 9, 2015

Bread, cereal and other sugary processed foods cause rapid spikes and subsequent crashes in blood sugar. In contrast, diets made up of vegetables, fruits and whole grains are healthier, in part because they take longer to ...

Neuroscientists reveal autism's 'noisy' secret

May 26, 2015

Strapped into a motion-enabled simulator and wearing 3D glasses, 36 adolescent volunteers recently experienced what it was like to "travel" through a field of virtual stars. The experiments provided new and convention-busting ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.