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Autism Linked to Immune System: A Mom’s View

Finally, some research that makes sense.”

This is what parents of autistic kids are saying, as new research validates my “DNA of crap” theory is suggesting that higher-than-normal levels of a protein element in the blood provide a link to both autism and immune system abnormalities, such as allergies.

The study, from the University of South Florida‘s Laboratory for Developmental Neurobiolgoy, used a mouse model to show that elevated levels of amyloid precursor protein (APP) circulating in the blood could explain immune system issues in the autistic population.

“Autism affects one in 110 children in the United States today,” said research team leader Jun Tan, MD, PhD. “While there are reports of abnormal T-cell numbers and function in some persons affected with autism, no specific cause has been identified. The disorder is diagnosed by behavioral observation and to date no associated biomarkers have been identified.”

The amyloid precursor protein is typically the focus of research related to Alzheimer’s disease. However, recent scientific reports have identified elevated levels of the particular protein fragment, called sAPP-α, in the blood of autistic children. The fragment is a well-known growth factor for nerves, and studies imply that it plays a role in T-cell immune responses as well.

Oh, T-cells. You crafty little buggers.

What does all this mean, you may ask? It means that now there’s a possibility of a blood test for autism. And when it comes to autism and allergies, it also means that across the globe right now, a whole slew of parents are saying, “I know! Gahhhhh why don’t you ever listen to the moms?”

Here’s the thing: All allergies are a malfunction of the immune system; T-cell reactions are just another way you can be messed up in that department.  Regular allergy bloodwork or skin-prick tests look for an IgE reaction.  T-cell food reactions are rarer and require a completely different test.  Either way, your immune system is screwy. If your immune system was an army, allergies would be Bill Murray in Stripes, totally malfunctioning and shooting at all the wrong things.

Speaking of T-cells, here are a few fun facts about my DNA of crap:

  • All four of my kids had massive, horrendous T-cell mediated food allergies when they were small, none of which were fully diagnosed until we got into a super-special pediatric allergy department that had the right kind of testing capability.
  • My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, when he was four years old.
  • He’s also had other weird immune system issues, including a bout of Kawasaki Disease, an autoimmune blood vessel disease, when he was a baby.
  • Extensive food allergies (to really weird stuff like pears or chicken) run in a deep, deep line along the maternal branch of my family tree.
  • You know what else runs on my maternal family tree? Yeah, autistic traits. While these weren’t always diagnosed back in the day, let’s just say it would explain a lot.

It’s not just our family, either. Over a year ago, I conducted an admittedly totally unscientific poll of parents of autistic kids on my blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. Of my readers with autistic kids, 30 percent said their kids had no allergies that they knew of. A full 70 percent said their children had food, medicine, or environmental allergies. Most had a combination of those types of allergies. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 20 percent of the population has allergies.

I know I suck at math and it wasn’t a real study, but 70 percent? Is a lot higher than 20 percent.

crazy number of my blog readers have pretty much the same story: Autism, allergies, asthma, eczema.  Those four maladies are all best buds in my family, skipping down the family tree, hand-in-hand.  Tra la la.

In fact, here is an actual diagram of my family tree:

My crappy DNA, personified: See how the asthma guy is gasping for breath? And the autism guy is looking away from the camera? It’s uncanny, I tell you. 

By the time Little Dude’s autism was diagnosed, he had outgrown most of his food allergies.  But I sent an email to our pediatric allergist, letting him know, and asking him if he had an explanation for why so many of the kids I knew with autism also had wicked allergies.  At that time–a year and a half ago–he emailed me back to say that there wasn’t any scientific link.

When I emailed him this study today, he emailed me back with something along the lines of “I know, I know, we’re trying to get more research funded right now.”

Now, I’m not a doctor, and I don’t even play one on TV. But it seems to me that this link between autism and immune system malfunction could explain a lot, like why some kids with autism do better on a gluten-free, casein-free (CFCF) diet.  Or why some parents, despite so many studies disproving any link between autism and vaccines, believe that their child changed, somehow, after being vaccinated. If a child has a mis-wired immune system, could a vaccine somehow be a trigger point, overwhelming the system and causing other problems?

I don’t know, but for once I feel like we might find out. This is one of those great moments in autism research: a study that doesn’t simple raise more questions, it raises possibilities.

I’m waiting for more research with bated breath. No, wait, I just need my asthma inhaler. Okay. Now I’m just waiting for more research.

(Image Credits: Autism Ribbon Photo Credit, BLW Photography. DNA Personified Photo Credit: Original Image by StockPhoto; Added Nonsense by Joslyn Gray.)

You can read more from Joslyn at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow her on Facebook and on Twitter. Because sometimes, autism is funny.

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