Case Management, Life Care Plan, Medical Consultation

What Is the Link Between Autism & The Immune System?

 February 8, 2017

By  Deborah L Weiner Katz, OTR/L, CCM, CLCP

When little is known about a disorder, there is not much more we can do, as medical professionals, other than react. It can be quite frustrating. Fortunately, great strides are being made in autism research on a regular basis.

On one hand, we react with compassion and preparedness when cases like young Gregory M are brought to our attention. Gregory is a young autistic boy whose mother and attorney sought our help when he began to exhibit new behavioral and cognitive problems following a serious motor vehicle accident. It was our task to help build a case that would prove to the insurance carrier that Gregory had experienced life-altering problems because of the accident. It involved creating a chronology based on Gregory’s medical, academic, and developmental history. We obtained a report from his physician. Basically, we got the job done…but is the job over?

The job is never over. The case of Gregory M may be after the fact but education is how we address the source. We are constantly educating ourselves when it comes to the still emerging truth of autism and its possible causes. The latest research suggests a link between the development of the immune system and neurological development. There are some interesting questions raised, each worthy of its own post. We’re just going to skim the surface.

What does the immune system do?

Everyone knows that their immune system defends against illness. But how? What is the ideal immune system expected to do? It should be able to:

  • Recognize all foreign organisms like bacteria and viruses.
  • Destroy invaders.
  • Repel repeat attacks by using the very same microorganisms.

At the very least, the immune system shouldn’t cause damage. Right?

What can go wrong?

For one, there is always deficiency or dysfunction. A defective or ineffective immune system causes damage simply by not doing its job. What else is there?

  • Hypersensitivity: The immune system can overdo its job. By over-reacting to harmless foreign substances, it can cause disproportional damage. Those scenarios are known as allergies.
  • Autoimmunity: Sometimes the immune system sees you as the problem. It reacts against your own healthy cells and tissue. The result is known as autoimmune disease.
  • Inflammation: This can be caused by those aforementioned allergies. However, there is always collateral damage done to normal tissue when the immune system attacks invaders with too much zeal.

Now that we’ve acquainted ourselves with the immune system, let’s start to understand what corresponding growth might be occurring in humans. The path will hopefully lead to new insight into the autism spectrum.

What is the link between the immune system & social behavior?

Scientists now believe that the immune system has a profound effect on brain function. In other words, the central nervous system and the immune system are intertwined. What happens to one directly affects the other. A molecule from the immune system called interferon gamma, which responds to infection, also controls brain activity in the same region that affects social behavior. One of those over-reactions could end up cancelling out the activity in this region.

Another way to look at the relationship is that when organisms are in close contact, infections spread more rapidly. It is possible that interferon gamma was the body’s way to regulate the fight against pathogens when we became more densely populated.  It now seems equally possible that this may result in women having children with autism and intellectual disability, due to studies indicating a link between these births and pregnant women with high levels of interferon gamma in their blood.

What is the link between autism & the immune system?

Autism is believed to be caused by a convergence of genetic predisposition and environmental factors such as infection, nutritional deficiency or even pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals. Both affect our immune systems. When they converge, early brain development may be affected.

Now, we already know of the problems related to the immune system’s development. It turns out disruptions in immunological pathways are something that people on the autism spectrum have in common. Post-mortem studies on their genetic make-up and certain altered genes have also been found to be unique to those on the spectrum. These genes produce proteins. Some of these proteins serve two functions: regulating the immune system and influencing brain development.

We arm ourselves with this knowledge so that when we are called upon to build and manage cases for individuals on the autism spectrum, we can stand on solid ground while conferring with physicians, caregivers, and attorneys.

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