Friday, 18 July 2014

Ultrafine particulate matter air pollution, mice and autism

Reading the headline "Study links air pollution to autism, schizophrenia" in a media piece about the study by Joshua Allen and colleagues* (open-access here) made me want to delve a little more into this research. I've talked before about air pollution and autism (see here) on this blog. Although a healthy degree of scepticism is to be expected with any autism correlation, particularly when it comes to something as generalised as air pollution (or pesticide exposure) there is a growing research interest in how this aspect of the environment may have some bearing on autism risk.
Cloudy with a chance of... @ Wikipedia 

A few details about the Allen study might be useful:

  • This was a study involving mice. I'll repeat that: this was a study involving mice. It involved exposing a particular strain of mouse, modelled to represent a particular age "during early postnatal development" to "human relevant levels" of air pollution in the form of ultrafine particulates (<100 nm).
  • Mouse brains were analysed at different time periods following exposure (24 hours, 40 days and 270 days after) looking at brain morphology, neurotransmitter levels and those all important immune system chemicals involved in processes like inflammation: the cytokines.
  • Results: bearing in mind some quite detailed control of the amount of air pollution exposure mimicking ambient doses near roadways, quite a few effects were noted. There was for example, "a persistent dilation of the lateral ventricles" induced by CAPS (concentrated ambient ultrafine particles) "preferentially in male mice". I believe this is called ventriculomegaly.
  • "CAPS induces brain region- and sex-dependent alterations in cytokines and neurotransmitters in both males and females". So in male mice, "increased hippocampal glutamate" among other things was observed. In females, "CAPS reduced hippocampal GABA" and more.
  • Of the various cytokines included for analysis, an old friend ranked up there when it came to some of the results obtained: IL-6. Again, there seemed to be region and sex specific alterations to this cytokine and some of them were "unanticipated" as per the lower levels of IL-6 and other relations in certain areas. IL-6 shares some features of a pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokine [2] although more often than not, it is the pro-inflammatory effects which get the headlines [3]. 
  • The word 'microglia' also crops up in the Allen results. "CAPS altered IBA-1 immunostaining in the anterior commissure and hippocampus only in males". IBA-1 is a protein expressed in microglia.
  • The authors conclude: "Collectively these data show a dramatic susceptibility of male mice to environmentally relevant levels of early postnatal air pollution exposure, with effects that persist into adulthood and cause permanent neuropathology characterized by ventricular enlargement, a pathology not seen in females".

Reiterating again that this was a study of mice and that mice are mice not humans, these are some intriguing data presented by Allen and colleagues. The focus on male mice slots nicely into the [seemingly] over-representation of autism in boys and men. Elevations in glutamate - hippocampal glutamate [4] in male mice - might also overlap with the growing fascination that autism and schizophrenia research have with this neurotransmitter (see here). Some light reading around the finding of "CAPS-induced ventricular enlargement" observed in males leads down some interesting paths such as a possible relationship with agenesis of the corpus callosum [5] reported to be "a major risk factor for developing autism" according to some authors [6]. In short, there are plenty of correlations seemingly heading back to conditions like autism.

But... there are a few important points to bear in mind before we get too carried away. First and foremost, nothing is reported in the Allen paper around mouse behaviour and how that may or may not have overlapped with other mouse data trying to model autism. One should always be a little cautious when one hears the words 'autistic behaviour' when it comes to a mouse and whether for example, they vocalise or not, or decide to bury their marbles in a particular way as being representative of facets of the condition. It isn't but it's some of the best animal model behaviour that we currently have including the rat models. Allen et al on this occasion reported nothing about behaviour and how it may or may not link to their physiological findings. 

Second is a question already asked by someone in/on the Twittersphere: "Air pollution was so much worse many decades ago yet autism rates staggeringly higher today, not then" (thanks Jill). This is an important point which may have lots of different answers bearing in mind your acceptance that things were worse back in olden times (see here for more news from urban China). Perhaps one of the most relevant issues at the moment was the study by Heather Volk and colleagues [7] discussed in a previous post (see here) talking about gene x environment interactions. If one assumes that genes, gene expression, are being affected by air pollution and that some people might already be more 'at risk' than others, there could be something more to do in this area of investigation.

Finally, Allen and colleagues seemed to have focused all their attention on the brain of their brave mouse participants. They don't talk about whether other organs or biological systems were affected by air pollution. I know that I'm probably going to get some rolling of the eyes for this but harking back to other mouse models of autism, I note some interest in things like the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to be an upcoming area (see here for example on the VPA mouse model). Assuming that the GI tract will also an important exposure point for air pollution [8], could there be merit in looking at this and other organs too all in the name of the gut-brain axis? Also, not forgetting lungs (see here) and skin as important exposure sites too.


[1] Allen JL. et al. Early Postnatal Exposure to Ultrafine Particulate Matter Air Pollution: Persistent Ventriculomegaly, Neurochemical Disruption, and Glial Activation Preferentially in Male Mice. Environ Health Perspect. 2014 Jun 5.

[2] Scheller J. et al. The pro- and anti-inflammatory properties of the cytokine interleukin-6. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Molecular Cell Research. 2011; 1813: 878-888.

[3] Rincon M. Interleukin-6: from an inflammatory marker to a target for inflammatory diseases. Trends in Immunology. 2012; 33: 571-577.

[4] Kraguljac NV. et al. Increased Hippocampal Glutamate and Volumetric Deficits in Unmedicated Patients With Schizophrenia. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013; 70.

[5] Amato M. et al. Fetal ventriculomegaly, agenesis of the corpus callosum and chromosomal translocation--case report. J Perinat Med. 1986;14(4):271-4.

[6] Paul LK. et al. Agenesis of the corpus callosum and autism: a comprehensive comparison. Brain. 2014; April 25.

[7] Volk HE. et al. Autism spectrum disorder: interaction of air pollution with the MET receptor tyrosine kinase gene. Epidemiology. 2014 Jan;25(1):44-7.

[8] Kaplan G. Air pollution and the inflammatory bowel diseases. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2011 May;17(5):1146-8.

---------- Allen JL, Liu X, Pelkowski S, Palmer B, Conrad K, Oberdörster G, Weston D, Mayer-Pröschel M, & Cory-Slechta DA (2014). Early Postnatal Exposure to Ultrafine Particulate Matter Air Pollution: Persistent Ventriculomegaly, Neurochemical Disruption, and Glial Activation Preferentially in Male Mice. Environmental health perspectives PMID: 24901756