Autism awareness is one of the most well-known platforms in the world. A day is dedicated in early April for World Autism Awareness Day. This year, over 90 countries participated in the Light It Up Blue campaign where prominent landmarks were bathed in blue light to show support, unity, and awareness. Approximately 1 in 88 children in the United States alone are affected by autism.
Autism is one disorder that falls into a group of disorders. Up until recently, autistic disorder fell under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders, which also included Asperger’s disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. The authority on how autism is classified is the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 2013, changes to the DSM-5 regarding autism have taken effect. In the DSM-5, the three independent diagnoses of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified have been merged under the name Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), making the previous group title Pervasive Developmental Disorders obsolete. Autism Spectrum Disorder is a term that has been used by physicians and the community to describe an individual with autism.
The cause of autism has been the topic of debate for many years. In the 1990s and early 2000s, vaccines were thought to be a cause but have since been disproved via numerous studies as quoted by the CDC. In 2008, an immunologist, Dr. Judy Van de Water from the University of California, Davis, discovered a group of auto-antibodies in mothers of autistic children. Recently, her team identified six proteins that these antibodies bind to, rendering inappropriate brain development. Dr. Van de Water’s recent study has shown there is a link between maternal antibodies and autism, known as maternal autoantibody-related (MAR) autism.
The study consisted of 395 mothers, 246 moms of children diagnosed on the spectrum and 149 moms of typically developing children. Twenty three percent of the 246 moms tested positive for antibodies that recognized two or more of the proteins that directly affect brain growth. Only 1 percent of the 149 moms of typically developing children tested positive for the antibodies. It is known that maternal antibodies transfer to a fetus and maternal IgG can be detected in fetal circulation at 13 weeks of gestation in humans. During early brain development, the blood-brain barrier is not fully established, allowing the auto-antibodies that attack fetal brain proteins to cross over. This study has shown a high specificity for the risk of autism of children born to mothers who carry these antibodies.
Currently, there is no way to control the production of these antibodies in mothers; however, Dr. Van de Water’s team is hopeful that their discovery will lead to a test that can predict a child’s risk of developing Autism Spectrum Disorder if it is suspected, allowing for early intervention; and a mother can be tested before becoming pregnant to asses her chance of having children with autism. If she tests positive, this new information may lead to a block for the antibodies.
There is no cure for autism but this newest study brings hope that one day the prevalence of autism will decrease and treatments will evolve to prevent the disorder from being passed on.