Abnormal lipid molecules can trigger autism during pregnancy.

autism1The first study of its kind has determined that abnormal levels of lipid molecules in the brain can impact on the interaction between pathways that are a key to early prenatal development. The study was published in the journal of Cell Communication and Signaling; researchers correlated the abnormal lipid molecules to autism. Environmental exposure to chemicals can affect the level of these lipids. The level of Autism in the United States is still rising on an epidemic level. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from 2010 estimates that 1 in 68 children now has autism.

The researchers specifically found that certain genes, already known to be associated with autism, are involved depending on exposure to environmental toxins.

“We have found that the abnormal level of a lipid molecule called Prostaglandin E2 in the brain can affect the function of Wnt proteins. It is important because this can change the course of early embryonic development,” explains Professor Dorota Crawford in the Faculty of Health and a member of the York Autism Alliance Research Group.

Lead researcher and York U doctoral student Christine Wong adds, “Using real-time imaging microscopy, we determined that higher levels of PGE2 can change Wnt-dependent behaviour of neural stem cells by increasing cell migration or proliferation. As a result, this could affect how the brain is organized and wired. Moreover, we found that an elevated level of PGE2 can increase expression of Wnt-regulated genes — Ctnnb1, Ptgs2, Ccnd1, and Mmp9. “Interestingly, all these genes have been previously implicated in various autism studies.”

“The statistics are alarming. It’s 30 per cent higher than the previous estimate of 1 in 88 children, up from only two years earlier. Perhaps we can no longer attribute this rise in autism incidence to better diagnostic tools or awareness of autism,” notes Crawford. “It’s even more apparent from the recent literature that the environment might have a greater impact on vulnerable genes, particularly in pregnancy. Our study provides some molecular evidence that the environment likely disrupts certain events occurring in early brain development and contributes to autism.”


Christine T Wong, Eizaaz Ahmad, Hongyan Li, Dorota A Crawford. Prostaglandin E2 alters Wnt-dependent migration and proliferation in neuroectodermal stem cells: implications for autism spectrum disorders. Cell Communication and Signaling, 2014; 12 (1): 19 DOI: 10.1186/1478-811X-12-19

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