Researchers at UC Davis say they have found that children with autism have deficits in a type of immune cell -- called granulocytes -- that protect the body from infection.
In children with autism, the cells exhibit one-third the capacity to fight infection and protect the body from invasion compared with the same cells in children who are developing normally.
The cells, which circulate in the bloodstream, are less able to deliver crucial infection-fighting oxidative responses to combat invading pathogens because of dysfunction in their tiny energy-generating organelles, the mitochondria.
The study is published online in the journal Pediatrics.
“Granulocytes fight cellular invaders like bacteria and viruses by producing highly reactive oxidants, toxic chemicals that kill microorganisms. Our findings show that in children with severe autism the level of that response was both lower and slower," said Eleonora Napoli, lead study author and project scientist in the Department of Molecular Biosciences in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "The granulocytes generated less highly reactive oxidants and took longer to produce them."
The researchers also found that the mitochondria in the granulocytes of children with autism consumed far less oxygen than those of the typically developing children — another sign of decreased mitochondrial function.
The study was conducted using blood samples of children enrolled in the Childhood Risk of Autism and the Environment (CHARGE) Study and included 10 children with severe autism age 2 to 5 and 10 age-, race- and sex-matched children who were developing typically.