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Groundbreaking study reveals potential cause for autism

[Oct. 31, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Findings Show Inflammation Stops Some Neurons from Maturing in the Developing Brain, Which Could Open the Door to New Treatments. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In a breakthrough study, scientists from the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) have made an essential discovery linking inflammation in early childhood to the potential development of autism and schizophrenia.

The investigation showcases how inflammation impacts vulnerable brain cell development, providing insights into the underlying mechanisms of neurodevelopmental disorders.


It's already known in clinical circles that severe inflammation in young children increases their risk of developing disorders like autism and schizophrenia. The new study furthers our understanding by revealing how this happens.

UMSOM researchers turned to cutting-edge technology known as single-cell genomics to examine the brains of children who had tragically passed away from inflammatory conditions, such as bacterial or viral infections or asthma.


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For comparison, they also studied children who died from sudden accidents. The main discovery was that inflammation stalls the maturation of specific neurons in the cerebellum, a crucial brain area responsible for motor control, language, social skills, and emotional regulation.

Dr. Seth Ament, a scientist from UMSOM, commented on their methodology: “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.”


Using single nucleus RNA sequencing, the team could investigate changes in the brains at the cell level. Dr. Margaret McCarthy, another lead researcher, added, “This has never been done before in this age group and in the context of inflammation. The gene expression in the cerebella of children with inflammation were remarkably consistent.”

Seth Ament, PhD

For the study, brain tissues of 17 children aged one to five were examined—eight of whom died from inflammatory conditions and nine from accidents. Notably, none had been diagnosed with any neurological disorder before their untimely deaths. Their brain samples were sourced from the University of Maryland Brain and Tissue Bank and the Maryland Brain Collection.


The investigation revealed that inflammation particularly affects two rare types of cerebellar neurons: the Golgi and Purkinje neurons. These neurons displayed a premature halt in their maturation due to inflammation.

Margaret “Peg” McCarthy, PhD

Elaborating on the importance of these neurons, Dr. Ament stated: “Although rare, Purkinje and Golgi neurons have critical functions. Disruption of either of these developmental processes could explain how inflammation contributes to conditions like autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.”


Neurodevelopmental disorders are shaped by a combination of genetics and environmental factors. In this case, the environment is represented by inflammation. Thus, it's essential to understand how specific cells within the brain—and their interactions with genes—affect overall brain function. This knowledge is pivotal for developing treatments not just for autism and schizophrenia, but also for other disorders such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or substance use disorders.

Highlighting the significance of the study, UMSOM Dean Mark Gladwin, MD, said: “This study is one of the first to show that gene expression changes during inflammation may set the stage for later cellular dysfunction. It’s critical to understand these mechanisms and changes at the cellular level during brain development in the hope that someday we can develop treatments for neurodevelopmental disorders.”


In summary, understanding how inflammation during childhood affects brain development could be a significant step towards developing treatments for a range of neurological disorders. The pioneering work by the researchers at UMSOM offers hope and direction for future studies.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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