Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition that describes difficulty with sensory processing and social interaction. It can be directly related to another medical disorder or have no clear cause. With no clear cause, there is also no clear treatment. Scientists have been researching stem cells, how they can be used to model the disorder, and how they may be used to treat the disorder.
What is ASD?
ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder categorized by difficulty with sensory processing and social interaction. As a spectrum disorder, patients can present very differently. Scientists are not certain as to the exact cause. However, they believe it is in part environmental and in part genetic. Without an exact cause, researchers have had difficulty finding an exact solution. Currently, most treatments involve behavioral therapy. Some scientist believe that stem cells may be a part of the next solution.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are naturally occurring cells in the body that have the potential to turn into many types of cells. They can become fat cells, nerve cells, bone cells, muscle cells, etc. They are useful in many diseases that cause a degeneration of one cell type.
Autism is different. Because scientists have not found the exact cause for autism, they do not necessarily know what cells to target. In this case, scientists are using stem cells both to try to understand the cause of ASD and to try to determine the best treatment.
Genetic Changes and ASD
Scientists believe that they may understand at least some of the causes behind autism. Specifically, they believe that inflammation and immune system dysfunctions may be related. The have found genetic changes in people with ASD.
Some of these genetic changes are related to immune function. Specifically, there is immune involvement seen in specific genes, seen with maternal risk factors like gestational diabetes and obesity, and also seen with maternal immune activation during pregnancy, like from a viral infection. These three examples of immune system involvement change how the nerve cells communicate in the fetus as the nervous system develops.
Some of these changes are also related to an inflammatory response in people with ASD. Post-mortem studies of people with ASD have shown that these individuals have more activation of glial cells, a type of support cell for the nervous system that functions in both the immune system and the inflammatory system. Additionally, maternal history of inflammation was associated with a 20-40% increased risk for ASD and other developmental disorders.
How are they used in modeling?
Stem cells are uniquely suited for ASD modeling. Scientists can use these stem cells, track their development, change them to reflect the genetic changes found in ASD, and see what happens. Embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells can create human neuronal and glial cells in the lab. They can organize themselves into a depiction of the brain. They then develop. Taking stem cells from individuals with ASD and comparing them to stem cells from individuals without ASD can help scientists understand how the autistic brain develops.
How are they used in modeling?
Currently autism treatment can be divided into different categories: behavioral, educational, medical, and alternative interventions. These treatments are tailored to the individual. One particular research study wanted to learn which types of stem cells were most effective in the treatment of autism. They divided the participants into three different groups. They had one human cord blood mononuclear cell (CBMNC) group, one combination group who received both umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells (UCMSC) and CBMNCs, and one control group who did not receive stem cells. To measure outcome, they used multiple scales that are often used when assessing autism. They found that between the three groups, there were no safety issues or differences and no severe adverse effects from the stem cells. They found that both stem cell groups had statistically significant improvements in their scores compared to the control group 24 weeks after the treatment. Additionally, they found that the combination of stem cells had better therapeutic effects than just CBMNC alone.
Stem cells are useful in the research of both the cause and the treatment of autism. By helping the healthcare field understand more about the disorder, they can better help patients with their symptoms. Contact the Stem Cell Transplant Institute to learn more today.