The role of maternal infections in mental development of offspring was a central research focus of Paul Patterson of California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California who died last week at the age of 70.
During his distinguished career, Patterson asked if a challenge to a mother’s immune system could lead to future behavioral disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.
- Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by behaviors that include impaired language development, resistance to change, repetitive behaviors and social difficulties.
- Schizophrenia is a mental disorder in which people may exhibit hallucinations, delusions, and irrational thinking and behavior.
While the causes are not clear, genetics, toxins, nutritional deficiencies as well as infections are under suspicion.
After exposing pregnant rodents to a chemical trigger, researchers found that their pups did indeed exhibit behavioral aberrations similar to autism and schizophrenia. Later research suggested a mechanism: an impaired immune system perhaps fosters a “leaky gut” which allows harmful bacteria to invade the body, and brain.
Patterson wrote in Trends in Molecular Medicine in 2011
“Work on the maternal infection risk factor using animal models indicates that aspects of brain and peripheral immune dysregulation can begin during fetal development and continue through adulthood. The offspring of infected or immune-activated dams also display cardinal behavioral features of autism, as well as neuropathology consistent with that seen in human autism.”
Patterson wrote the 2013 book “Infectious Behavior: Brain-Immune Connections in Autism, Schizophrenia and Depression.”
Other clues from other labs:
It is known that children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or ASD often suffer from intestinal distress which is associated with abnormal intestinal microflora. A recent study at Ohio State University suggests that children with autism may have significantly lower numbers of beneficial bacteria (Lactobacilli) and higher of harmful bacteria (Clostridium bolteae). Clostridia are neurotoxin-producing, endospore-forming harmful species of bacteria.
Could it be possible that a gastrointestinal event triggers ASD? Or could the trigger be antibiotic use? A significant percentage of individuals with autism have a history of extensive antibiotic use.
In one study, women hospitalized because of an infection in the second trimester were three times a as likely to birth a child later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. This research was conducted by Ousseny Zerbo and colleagues for Kaiser Permanente, a health provider.
According to his obituary in The Los Angeles Times, Patterson “continued his scientific work after his brain tumor was diagnosed in 2013, attending group meetings of his lab…. When he could no longer be brought to Caltech in a wheelchair, the meetings were moved to his home.”
The search continues to find the cause and cures for this devastating disorder. Paul Patterson’s work got us closer to the answers.