Beyond infection - Maternal immune activation by environmental factors, microglial development, and relevance for autism spectrum disorders

Exp Neurol. 2018 Jan;299(Pt A):241-251. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2017.07.002. Epub 2017 Jul 8.


Immune molecules such as cytokines and chemokines and the cells that produce them within the brain, notably microglia, are critical for normal brain development. This recognition has in recent years led to the working hypothesis that inflammatory events during pregnancy, e.g. in response to infection, may disrupt the normal expression of immune molecules during critical stages of neural development and thereby contribute to the risk for neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This hypothesis has in large part been shepherded by the work of Dr. Paul Patterson and colleagues, which has elegantly demonstrated that a single viral infection or injection of a viral mimetic to pregnant mice significantly and persistently impacts offspring immune and nervous system function, changes that underlie ASD-like behavioral dysfunction including social and communication deficits. Subsequent studies by many labs - in humans and in non-human animal models - have supported the hypothesis that ongoing disrupted immune molecule expression and/or neuroinflammation contributes to at least a significant subset of ASD. The heterogeneous clinical and biological phenotypes observed in ASD strongly suggest that in genetically susceptible individuals, environmental risk factors combine or synergize to create a tipping or threshold point for dysfunction. Importantly, animal studies showing a link between maternal immune activation (MIA) and ASD-like outcomes in offspring involve different species and diverse environmental factors associated with ASD in humans, beyond infection, including toxin exposures, maternal stress, and maternal obesity, all of which impact inflammatory or immune pathways. The goal of this review is to highlight the broader implications of Dr. Patterson's work for the field of autism, with a focus on the impact that MIA by diverse environmental factors has on fetal brain development, immune system development, and the pathophysiology of ASD.

Keywords: Air pollution; Developmental programming; Environmental toxins; Neurodevelopmental disorders.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / etiology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / immunology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / pathology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / psychology
  • Environment*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immune System / physiopathology
  • Microglia / immunology
  • Microglia / pathology*
  • Pregnancy