A Scientist Writes About Autism, Schizophrenia and their Causes

A Scientist Writes About Autism, Schizophrenia and their Causes

Posted: November 30, 2011

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I recently wrote a book intended for the general public in which I examine the involvement of the immune system in autism, schizophrenia and major depressive disorder. The focus is on brain-immune crosstalk, exploring the possibility that it may help us understand the causes of these common but still mysterious diseases. The heart of the book concerns the involvement of the immune systems of the pregnant woman and her fetus, and a consideration of maternal infection as a risk factor for schizophrenia and autism. This is closely related to the general topic of the prenatal origins of adult disease. I discuss research that may shed light on today’s autism epidemic, and also outline the risks and benefits of both maternal and postnatal vaccinations. In the course of this discussion, I offer a short history of immune manipulation in treating mental illness (recounting some frightening but fascinating early experiments) and explain how the immune system influences behavior, and how the brain regulates the immune system, looking in particular at stress and depression. Finally, I describe the promise shown by recent animal experiments that have led to early clinical trials of postnatal and adult treatments for patients with autism and related disorders. The purpose of the book is to alert the public to important issues of public health, such as the risks associated with infection during pregnancy, which is a problem not widely appreciated.

My association with the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, then known as NARSAD, started many years ago when I received the first of two grants to begin work on mental illness. These grants were particularly important to get projects going because the application did not require extensive preliminary results. This is unlike applications to the National Institutes of Health, where the research practically has to be already finished to get funding to do it! My interest in mental health research was stimulated initially by the preparation of course lectures on this topic at Harvard Medical School, and subsequently at the California Institute of Technology. In giving these lectures I became motivated to develop an animal model of schizophrenia and autism that is based on an actual risk factor implicated in the human disorders. Interest in autism was also motivated by a case in our family, and the striking recent increases in its diagnosis.

The book can be accessed at the MIT Press website.

I also update the topics in the book every few days and welcome questions and comments on the blog.

By Paul H. Patterson, Ph.D., NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee