Weizmann study links viral infections in pregnant women to autism, schizophrenia risk

The study, led by Dr. Ido Amit and Prof. Michal Schwartz of the Rehovot institute’s immunology and neurobiology departments, was published in the journal Science.

WEIZMANN INSTITUTE scientists have studied the effect of cytomegalovirus on mouse fetuses.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
WEIZMANN INSTITUTE scientists have studied the effect of cytomegalovirus on mouse fetuses.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Weizmann Institute of Science research on mice apparently explains why certain viral infections in pregnant women can raise the risk of autism and schizophrenia in their children.
The study, led by Dr. Ido Amit and Prof. Michal Schwartz of the Rehovot institute’s immunology and neurobiology departments, was published in the journal Science.
The study may explain how the mother’s infection with cytomegalovirus (CMV) during pregnancy, which affects her own and her fetus’s immune system, increases at the cellular and the mechanistic molecular levels the risk that her offspring will years later develop neurodevelopmental diseases.
This increased risk of neurodevelopmental diseases had been discovered years ago in epidemiological studies and confirmed in mouse models.
But researchers did not know why. The new study posits a possible explanation.
“Previous studies had shown that the timing of the disruption in the mother’s immune system during pregnancy affects the type of brain damage her child may develop. For example, a viral infection in early pregnancy raises the risk of autism, whereas an infection later in the pregnancy raises the risk of schizophrenia,” said Amit. “We’ve set out to examine the mechanisms behind these phenomena, while focusing on the role the immune system plays in brain development.”
Orit Matcovitch-Natan, a graduate student in the laboratories of both Amit and Schwartz, and other members of the two teams, studied the sole immune cells present in the brain – the microglia, which contribute to the brain’s development and maintenance. The scientists discovered that the development of these cells in the mouse fetus and in newborn mice proceeds in three distinct stages, parallel to those of the developing brain – early cells that populate the brain of the embryo shortly after its inception, pre-microglia and adult cells.
By screening and testing the genomes of these cells, the scientists were able to define each stage in terms of its activated genes, their control mechanisms and the epigenetic features, that is, the activation of proteins that “package” the DNA and affect gene expression in the course of development.
The scientists also characterized the functions of some of these genes in the microglia, which contributed to an in-depth understanding of the developmental processes.
The second stage – that of the pre-microglia – proved the most sensitive to disruptions.
This stage takes place close to birth and shortly afterwards, just when the developing brain undergoes the vital process of “pruning,” in which inappropriate synapses among neurons are cut off. The pre-microglia play an important role in pruning, helping remove the superfluous neuronal networks, and shaping and strengthening the connections among the remaining neurons.
When the scientists exposed the brains of pregnant mice to synthetic materials that mimic a CMV infection, they found that the development of the pre-microglia was disrupted in their offspring. Genes involved in the maturation of these cells were expressed at the wrong time, and the cells proceeded to an adult stage earlier than usual.
The offspring later exhibited abnormal behavior, including disturbances in social interaction and behaviors similar to those of people with schizophrenia.
“We’ve discovered that it’s essential for the development of immune cells in the brain to be synchronized with the development of the brain itself,” noted Schwartz. “Premature shift of the microglia in mice to the adult stage leads to brain malfunction later on.”
Though these findings have been obtained in rodents, the scientists hypothesize that disrupted coordination between the development of the microglia and that of the brain contributes to an increased risk of such neurodevelopmental disorders as autism and schizophrenia in humans. The scientists believe that the heightened immune response to viral infection in the mother’s body may be responsible for disrupting the timing of microglia development.
“Our research has paved the way for studying the effects of other viruses on the mother’s immune system in general, and on her offspring’s brain development. It can also advance the study of neurodevelopmental disorders and their connection to the immune system,” said Matcovitch-Natan.
In yet another series of experiments, the Weizmann scientists established a connection between the development of the microglia in the brains of mice and intestinal microbes – the microbiome. They found that in newborn mice that were free of any microbes, the maturation of the microglia was delayed.
This finding suggests that in human babies, factors that shape the microbiome – natural ones such as breastfeeding, or therapeutic factors such as antibiotics – may affect the immune cells in the baby’s brain and consequently the brain’s development.
It’s still unknown to what extent this research, conducted in mice, is relevant to human beings, but the scientists hope that an improved understanding of this process may in the future help prevent certain neurological disorders in babies, caused by disruptions in the mother’s immune system.