New insight on maternal infections and neurodevelopmental disorders

Summary: Maternal inflammation has been linked to a range of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders in children, including autism and schizophrenia. A new mouse study reveals maternal responses and subsequent developmental disorders are based on the mother’s immunoreactivity to infection.

Source: UC Davis

The immune responses of a female mouse before pregnancy can predict how likely her offspring are to have behavioral deficits if the immune system is activated during pregnancy, according to researchers from the Center for Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis. The findings, published April 23 in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, could help resolve what role serious infections during pregnancy play in the later development of conditions such as autism and schizophrenia in offspring.

Both genetics and a variety of environmental risk factors are thought to play a role in mental illness, said Professor Kim McAllister, director of the Center for Neuroscience and senior author on the paper. Most pregnancies are resilient, she said. Although the risk from maternal immune activation is low, it could provide a way in to the underlying problems that lead to schizophrenia or autism.

“We don’t have a good handle on what causes these diseases,” she said. “But, maternal infection is a risk factor that we know contributes. So, our research focuses on how to predict which pregnancies are at risk and discover new ways to intervene and prevent disease in offspring.”

The first evidence for a role for maternal infection in mental and developmental disorders came from the influenza epidemic of 1918, McAllister said. Epidemiological studies 15 to 20 years later of children who were in gestation at the time showed an increase in these disorders. Other evidence comes from animal studies.

Mouse model of immune activation

Apart from influenza, a wide variety of viruses and bacteria have been implicated in maternal immune activation. So the effect is more likely due to the mother’s reaction to infections than with the infectious organism itself.

To reproduce this in mice, McAllister’s team doses pregnant mice with a molecule called polyinosinic:polycytidylic acid, or poly (I:C), which is double-stranded RNA, the genetic material for many viruses including influenza and coronaviruses. The immune system recognizes poly (I:C) as if it were a virus and triggers an immediate inflammatory response, especially releasing a molecule called interleukin-6, or IL-6.

The mice continue with pregnancy and when the offspring are about 2 months old, the researchers test them for behavioral abnormalities, such as repetitive behaviors or freezing in place.

One of the advantages of working with laboratory mice is that they are bred so that they are genetically very similar. That makes it easier to see the effect of particular genes or environmental risk factors.

But when graduate student Myka Estes tried to treat laboratory mice with poly (I:C), she found to her surprise that their responses varied widely, even though the mice were all of the same age and genetic background, housed in the same cages in the same conditions.

Professor Judy Van de Water, an immunologist at the UC Davis School of Medicine and part of Estes’ thesis committee, suggested looking at baseline immune reactivity in the mice before they became pregnant.

When they did that, the team found that the IL-6 response of a particular mouse to poly (I:C) before it became pregnant could predict the likelihood of behavioral problems in offspring if the mouse were treated with poly (I:C) later during pregnancy.

“People assume that their mice are all the same, but there is clearly a wide range of baseline immunoreactivity,” McAllister said. That baseline immunoreactivity turns out to predict resilience or susceptibility to immune activation during pregnancy.

This shows a pregnant woman
Although the risk from maternal immune activation is low, it could provide a way in to the underlying problems that lead to schizophrenia or autism. Image is in the public domain.

“We can dose them with poly (I:C) and look at the IL-6 response and predict which ones will have affected offspring if we treat them during pregnancy,” she said.

Basic mechanisms and biomarkers

That has a couple of important implications. Firstly, with a reliable model for resilience and susceptibility, researchers can start to work out what genes and proteins involved in brain development are affected by immune activation and how this could lead to neurodevelopmental disorders.

“The next steps are to figure out what it is that is different about those mice,” McAllister said. “Now that we can predict which mice are at risk, we want to determine how specific patterns of immune signaling in the mom cause distinct outcomes in offspring. We are hoping to figure out how maternal infection can lead to no problem in many pregnancies and to a range of distinct diseases in offspring from other pregnancies.”

Secondly, it could lead to biomarkers for identifying pregnancies at higher risk from infections and taking steps to protect mothers by vaccination or treatment. That will likely involve further work in mice followed up with experiments in nonhuman primates before moving into human studies.

Additional authors on the study are: at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, Kathryn Prendergast, Jeremy MacMahon, Scott Cameron, John Paul Aboubechara, Kathleen Farrelly, Gabrielle Sell, Aurora Horta, Ida Shaffer, Catherine Le, Greg Kincheloe, Danielle John Tan, Cameron Carter and Deborah van der List; and at the UC Davis School of Medicine, Lori Haapanen, Joseph Schauer and Melissa Bauman.

Funding: The work was supported by grants from the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, Autism Speaks, several UC Davis fellowships and awards, the NIH and by the NIH-funded Silvio O. Conte Center at UC Davis.

About this neuroscience research article

UC Davis
Media Contacts:
Andy Fell – UC Davis
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Baseline immunoreactivity before pregnancy and poly(I:C) dose combine to dictate susceptibility and resilience of offspring to maternal immune activation”. by Kim McAllister et al.
Brain, Behavior, and Immunity doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2020.04.061


Baseline immunoreactivity before pregnancy and poly(I:C) dose combine to dictate susceptibility and resilience of offspring to maternal immune activation

Despite the potential of rodent models of maternal immune activation (MIA) to identify new biomarkers and therapeutic interventions for a range of psychiatric disorders, current approaches using these models ignore two of the most important aspects of this risk factor for human disease: (i) most pregnancies are resilient to maternal viral infection and (ii) susceptible pregnancies can lead to different combinations of phenotypes in offspring. Here, we report two new sources of variability—the baseline immunoreactivity (BIR) of isogenic females prior to pregnancy and differences in immune responses in C57BL/6 dams across vendors—that contribute to resilience and susceptibility to distinct combinations of behavioral and biological outcomes in offspring. Similar to the variable effects of human maternal infection, MIA in mice does not cause disease-related phenotypes in all pregnancies and a combination of poly(I:C) dose and BIR predicts susceptibility and resilience of pregnancies to aberrant repetitive behaviors and alterations in striatal protein levels in offspring. Even more surprising is that the intermediate levels of BIR and poly(I:C) dose are most detrimental to offspring, with higher BIR and poly(I:C) doses conferring resilience to measured phenotypes in offspring. Importantly, we identify the BIR of female mice as a biomarker before pregnancy that predicts which dams will be most at risk as well as biomarkers in the brains of newborn offspring that correlate with changes in repetitive behaviors. Together, our results highlight considerations for optimizing MIA protocols to enhance rigor and reproducibility and reveal new factors that drive susceptibility of some pregnancies and resilience of others to MIA-induced abnormalities in offspring.

Feel Free To Share This Neurodevelopment News.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.