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New Clues to How Inflammation in Young Children’s Brains Might Spur Autism

THURSDAY, Oct. 12, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Severe inflammation very early in childhood might hamper the development of key brain cells, perhaps setting the stage for conditions such as autism or schizophrenia, new research suggests.

The origins of many neurodevelopment disorders remain mysterious. But the new study of postmortem brain tissue from children who died between the ages 1 and 5 shows how inflammation affects brain cells.

In their research, the team from the University of Maryland School of Medicine targeted a portion of the brain known as the cerebellum, using a cutting-edge technology called single nucleus RNA sequencing.

“We looked at the cerebellum because it is one of the first brain regions to begin developing and one of the last to reach its maturity, but it remains understudied,said study co-leader Seth Ament, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Maryland.

The cerebellum is key to psychiatric research because it's responsible for higher cognitive functions such as those employed in language, social interactions and the regulation of emotion. Prior studies have shown that infants with abnormalities in their cerebellum often develop neurodevelopment disorders. In animal research, exposing the brain to inflammation before birth also seems to raise the odds for those types of conditions.

In their research, published Oct. 12 in Science Translational Medicine, Ament and co-lead author Margaret McCarthy noticed consistent genetic patterns in the cerebella of deceased children who had experienced some kind of severe inflammatory condition such as a bacterial or viral infection or asthma.

Overall, the Maryland team examined cerebellum tissues from 17 young children -- eight of whom died from an inflammatory condition and nine who died in accidents.

Two key type of cerebellum brain cells -- the Purkinje and Golgi neurons -- appeared to be especially vulnerable to inflammatory damage.

“Although rare, Purkinje and Golgi neurons have critical functions,” Ament explained in a university news release. “During development, Purkinje neurons form synapses connecting the cerebellum to other brain regions involved in cognition or emotional control, while Golgi neurons coordinate communication between cells within the cerebellum. Disruption of either of these developmental processes could explain how inflammation contributes to conditions like autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.”

A better understanding of brain cell disruptions occurring early in childhood could someday help lead to treatments for autism and schizophrenia, the researchers believe.

The new study is one of almost 30 papers published this week from a large number of research centers, all focused on mapping and understanding the variety of cells in the human brain.

More information:

There's more about autism at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCE: University of Maryland School of Medicine, news release, Oct. 12, 2023

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