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Lupus and Autism

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Lupus and Autism

Lupus Awareness Ribbon
Image by Iaonnes Baptista
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By A. G. Moore

There is no cure for lupus and we don’t know what causes it. However, there are certain events that do correlate with the incidence of lupus. For example, infection, particularly repeated infection, with Epstein Barr, according to the Mayo Clinic, is known to predispose some people to lupus. And exposure to silica, especially industrial exposure, is also know to raise the risk of lupus. But why and how these factors trigger lupus is not understood. If it was, the possibility of a cure would be much greater than it is now. Every clue that leads to understanding the mechanism of this disease is an advance in solving the lupus puzzle.

One very small piece of the puzzle that is receiving some attention is the apparent connection between autism and certain autoimmune diseases. Studies have shown, for example, that there is a statistical link between mothers who have rheumatoid arthritis and offspring who are born with autism. Also, there appears to be a connection between rheumatic fever, in either parent, and offspring who have autism.

A study that examined the autism/autoimmunity link appeared in the medical journal Epidemiology in November of 2010. This study was rather large–it included 1227 cases of autism and 30,693 control subjects. The results revealed what the authors characterize as a “weak” link between autism and parental autoimmune disease. A slightly stronger maternal (rather than paternal) link was demonstrated. The authors conclude that maternal autoimmunity is definitely correlated with increased incidence of autism in offspring. If both parents have an autoimmune disease, the correlation with autism in offspring is even stronger, especially if the parents have had rheumatic fever. This association between rheumatic fever holds true even if only one parent, maternal or paternal, has had the disease.

While the authors of this study are not prepared to give a rousing endorsement to a strong association between autoimmune disease and autism, they nonetheless note that the association between autism and certain autoimmune diseases had been observed in earlier studies. More importantly, the authors of the 2010 study suggest that these findings open up a significant area of research for understanding the causes of autism. They assert that by examining the link between parental autoimmune disease and autism, researchers may have a valuable tool with which to explore the root causes of autism

A paper published in Psychiatric News on August 21, 2009, describes more definitively the link between specific autoimmune diseases and autism. The article describes a 70 percent increase in the risk for offspring to have autism if the mother is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Further, the authors of the study conclude that there is apparently a strong connection between maternal celiac disease and the incidence of autism; they state that there is a three fold risk of offspring developing autism if the mother has celiac disease.

Not all autoimmune diseases were associated with an increased incidence of autism. According to this study, three diseases–multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and Crohn’s disease–were not associated with autism.

Finally, in a 1999 study from Johns Hopkins, researchers hypothesize that it is a disturbed immune system combined with environmental influences which contribute to the development of autism. The Hopkins’ study demonstrated that in the families where autism had been diagnosed, there was a 46% increase in the incidence of autoimmune disease. Further, the authors noted that as the number of family members with autism increased, so did the number of family members who were affected by autoimmune disease. When the number of family members affected by autoimmune disease increased to three, the odds of having an autistic child increased “from 1.9 to 5.5”.

Although there is certainly cause for reasonable skepticism about this line of research, it is clear that the association between autism and autoimmune disease demands further examination. As insight into the genetic basis for lupus, and autism, increases, so does the possibility that the cause for each of these may be discovered.


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