Link between maternal infections and autism focus of NIH grant

USF researchers look for ways to protect fetal brain in mice from autism-like changes induced by inflammation

Tampa, FL (Sept. 15, 2010) – University of South Florida neuroscientists have been awarded a $400,000 federal grant to study ways of protecting the developing fetal brain from the damaging  effects of maternal infections, a suspected cause for certain types of autism.

The two-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health was awarded to Jun Tan, MD, PhD, the Silver Chair in USF Health Developmental Neurobiology and professor of psychiatry at the Silver Child Development Center, USF Department of Psychiatry.

Recent USF studies have uncovered a natural citrus molecule, luteolin, and a related compound, diosmin, which may protect the developing fetal brain from the harmful results of maternal infections including the disruption of brain development.  Dr. Tan, the new grant’s principal investigator, and his team found when either luteolin or diosmin were given to pregnant mice, the detrimental effects of maternal infection on their offspring could be reduced.

“These agents appear to block the activation of the mother’s immune system,” said Dr. Tan. “With this NIH grant, we will be able to further examine whether the over-activation of a signaling pathway could be responsible for the structural changes in the brains of offspring. We are going to test diosmin’s potential to block autism-like brain changes in the offspring.”

These studies could lay the foundation for using diosmin and related compounds, such as luteolin, as a preventative treatment for mothers at high risk of certain infections, Dr. Tan said. “Much like folate is currently given to pregnant mothers in prenatal vitamins to avoid neural tube defects in their children, these compounds could potentially be used to prevent maternal infections from causing harmful types of brain inflammation associated with autism in children.”

The study’s co-principal investigators are Tanya Murphy, MD, Maurice A. and Thelma P. Rothman Chair of Developmental Pediatrics, and professor, USF Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, and Paula Bickford, PhD, professor at the USF Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair.

- USF Health -

USF Health (www.health.usf.edu) is dedicated to creating a model of health care based on understanding the full spectrum of health. It includes the University of South Florida’s colleges of medicine, nursing, and public health; the schools of biomedical sciences as well as pharmacy, and physical therapy & rehabilitation sciences; and the USF Physicians Group. With more than $394.1 million in research grants and contracts in FY2009/2010, the University of South Florida is one of the nation’s top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community-engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

- Release by Randy Fillmore, USF Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair

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