A new report published in Science indicates that the key pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin (IL)-17a may interfere with the normal brain development in a mouse model of autism, causing disorganized cortical cytoarchitecture and autism-like symptoms.
Previous research also suggests that viral infection of mothers during pregnancy may contribute to a higher incidence of ASD in the offspring (Atladóttir et al., 2010;Lee et al., 2015).
A disease model in rodents, referred to as ‘maternal immune activation’ (MIA) has been often used to study viral and immune activation in the mother during pregnancy, and the link to autism-like behaviors in the offspring. In this model pregnant mice are injected with the synthetic double-stranded RNA, poly(I:C), to mimic a viral infection.
In the Science report, Gloria Choi and colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, and the New York University School of Medicine, NY used the MIA model to study if the highly pathogenic IL-17-IL-17R pathway may contribute to abnormal fetal brain development and ASD-like behavioral phenotypes.
The authors found that in mothers, T helper (Th)17 cells and their effector cytokine IL-17 are required before the MIA-induced behavioral abnormalities are observed in the offspring.
They report that pregnant mothers, injected with poly(I:C), had a strong induction of serum IL-6 and IL-17 cytokine levels (of note, IL-6 is a key factor for Th17 cell differentiation). In addition, they found that the expression of the IL-17 receptor subunit A (IL-17Ra) was strongly augmented in the fetal brain upon induction of MIA. Importantly, the maternal IL-17a was able to induce abnormal cortical development in offspring, related to patches of disorganized cortical cytoarchitecture. Moreover, the maternal IL-17a promoted ASD-like behavioral abnormalities in the offspring.
Corroborating this data, in the study of Choi et al., the injection of pregnant mothers with antibodies against IL-17 supressed the increased IL-17Ra expression in fetus brain and prevented the development of ASD-like behavioral abnormalities.
Thus, these results suggest that an immunological activation during pregnancy may have important long-term outcomes in the offspring. This study finds that the Th17-IL-17-IL-17R pathway is able to affect neuronal development, and, identifies a specific maternal immune cell population that exerts a direct role in inducing ASD-like phenotypes by acting on the developing fetal brain.
Of note, the authors discuss that some of the IL-17 effects might be related to the structural similarities detected between the IL-17 family cytokines and neurotrophins such as the nerve growth factor.