In research on mice, the researchers found that the composition of bacterial populations in the mother’s digestive tract can influence whether maternal infection leads to autistic-like behaviors in offspring. They also discovered the specific brain changes that produce these behaviors.
“We identified a very discrete brain region that seems to be modulating all the behaviors associated with this particular model of neurodevelopmental disorder,” says Gloria Choi, the Samuel A. Goldblith Career Development Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
If further validated in human studies, the findings could offer a possible way to reduce the risk of autism, which would involve blocking the function of certain strains of bacteria found in the maternal gut, the researchers say.
Choi and Jun Huh, formerly an assistant professor at UMass Medical School who is now a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, are the senior authors of both papers, which appear in Nature on Sept. 13. MIT postdoc Yeong Shin Yim is the first author of one paper, and UMass Medical School visiting scholars Sangdoo Kim and Hyunju Kim are the lead authors of the other.
In this image: An irregularity in the somatosensory cortex, called a “patch,” can be seen as a cluster of blue in the brain of a mouse born to a mother that experienced Th17 immune activation during pregnancy.