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1.  Animal Models of Autism: An Epigenetic and Environmental Viewpoint 
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder of social behavior, which is more common in males than in females. The causes of autism are unknown; there is evidence for a substantial genetic component, but it is likely that a combination of genetic, environmental and epigenetic factors contribute to its complex pathogenesis. Rodent models that mimic the behavioral deficits of autism can be useful tools for dissecting both the etiology and molecular mechanisms. This review discusses animal models of autism generated by prenatal or neonatal environmental challenges, including virus infection and exposure to valproic acid (VPA) or stress. Studies of viral infection models suggest that interleukin-6 can influence fetal development and programming. Prenatal exposure to the histone deacetylase inhibitor VPA has been linked to autism in children, and male VPA-exposed rats exhibit a spectrum of autistic-like behaviors. The experience of prenatal stress produces male-specific behavioral abnormalities in rats. These effects may be mediated by epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation and histone acetylation resulting in alterations to the transcriptome.
PMCID: PMC3661233  PMID: 23861630
autism; environmental factors; epigenetic processes; experimental animal models
2.  Above genetics: lessons from cerebral development in autism 
Translational neuroscience  2011;2(2):106-120.
While a distinct minicolumnar phenotype seems to be an underlying factor in a significant portion of cases of autism, great attention is being paid not only to genetics but to epigenetic factors which may lead to development of the conditions. Here we discuss the indivisible role the molecular environment plays in cellular function, particularly the pivotal position which the transcription factor and adhesion molecule, β-catenin, occupies in cellular growth. In addition, the learning environment is not only integral to postnatal plasticity, but the prenatal environment plays a vital role during corticogenesis, neuritogenesis, and synaptogenesis as well. To illustrate these points in the case of autism, we review important findings in genetics studies (e.g., PTEN, TSC1/2, FMRP, MeCP2, Neurexin-Neuroligin) and known epigenetic factors (e.g., valproic acid, estrogen, immune system, ultrasound) which may predispose towards the minicolumnar and connectivity patterns seen in the conditions, showing how one-gene mutational syndromes and exposure to certain CNS teratogens may ultimately lead to comparable phenotypes. This in turn may shed greater light on how environment and complex genetics combinatorially give rise to a heterogenetic group of conditions such as autism.
PMCID: PMC3331673  PMID: 22523638
beta catenin; minicolumns; neural stem cells; Rett syndrome; fragile X syndrome; tuberous sclerosis; valproic acid; PTEN phosphohydrolase; ultrasonography; cell adhesion molecules; neuronal
3.  Metabolic Imbalance Associated with Methylation Dysregulation and Oxidative Damage in Children with Autism 
Oxidative stress and abnormal DNA methylation have been implicated in the pathophysiology of autism. We investigated the dynamics of an integrated metabolic pathway essential for cellular antioxidant and methylation capacity in 68 children with autism, 54 age-matched control children and 40 unaffected siblings. The metabolic profile of unaffected siblings differed significantly from case siblings but not from controls. Oxidative protein/DNA damage and DNA hypomethylation (epigenetic alteration) were found in autistic children but not paired siblings or controls. These data indicate that the deficit in antioxidant and methylation capacity is specific for autism and may promote cellular damage and altered epigenetic gene expression. Further, these results suggest a plausible mechanism by which pro-oxidant environmental stressors may modulate genetic predisposition to autism.
PMCID: PMC3342663  PMID: 21519954
Autism; Oxidative stress; Metabolic; Epigenetics; Glutathione; DNA methylation
4.  The influence of maternal prenatal and early childhood nutrition and maternal prenatal stress on offspring immune system development and neurodevelopmental disorders 
The developing immune system and central nervous system in the fetus and child are extremely sensitive to both exogenous and endogenous signals. Early immune system programming, leading to changes that can persist over the life course, has been suggested, and other evidence suggests that immune dysregulation in the early developing brain may play a role in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. The timing of immune dysregulation with respect to gestational age and neurologic development of the fetus may shape the elicited response. This creates a possible sensitive window of programming or vulnerability. This review will explore the effects of maternal prenatal and infant nutritional status (from conception until early childhood) as well as maternal prenatal stress and anxiety on early programming of immune function, and how this might influence neurodevelopment. We will describe fetal immune system development and maternal-fetal immune interactions to provide a better context for understanding the influence of nutrition and stress on the immune system. Finally, we will discuss the implications for prevention of neurodevelopmental disorders, with a focus on nutrition. Although certain micronutrient supplements have shown to both reduce the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders and enhance fetal immune development, we do not know whether their impact on immune development contributes to the preventive effect on neurodevelopmental disorders. Future studies are needed to elucidate this relationship, which may contribute to a better understanding of preventative mechanisms. Integrating studies of neurodevelopmental disorders and prenatal exposures with the simultaneous evaluation of neural and immune systems will shed light on mechanisms that underlie individual vulnerability or resilience to neurodevelopmental disorders and ultimately contribute to the development of primary preventions and early interventions.
PMCID: PMC3728489  PMID: 23914151
programming; immunology; mental health; neurodevelopmental disorders; psychiatric disorders; nutrition; anxiety; stress
5.  A review of the serotonin transporter and prenatal cortisol in the development of autism spectrum disorders 
Molecular Autism  2013;4:37.
The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) during early childhood has a profound effect not only on young children but on their families. Aside from the physical and behavioural issues that need to be dealt with, there are significant emotional and financial costs associated with living with someone diagnosed with ASD. Understanding how autism occurs will assist in preparing families to deal with ASD, if not preventing or lessening its occurrence.
Serotonin plays a vital role in the development of the brain during the prenatal and postnatal periods, yet very little is known about the serotonergic systems that affect children with ASD. This review seeks to provide an understanding of the biochemistry and physiological actions of serotonin and its termination of action through the serotonin reuptake transporter (SERT). Epidemiological studies investigating prenatal conditions that can increase the risk of ASD describe a number of factors which elevate plasma cortisol levels causing such symptoms during pregnancy such as hypertension, gestational diabetes and depression. Because cortisol plays an important role in driving dysregulation of serotonergic signalling through elevating SERT production in the developing brain, it is also necessary to investigate the physiological functions of cortisol, its action during gestation and metabolic syndromes.
PMCID: PMC3852299  PMID: 24103554
Autism spectrum disorder; Cortisol; Serotonin; SERT
6.  Association of hypomelanotic skin disorders with autism: links to possible etiologic role of vitamin-D levels in autism? 
Vitamin D is crucial for several key physiological processes, including brain development, DNA repair, and regulation of many genes. Much evidence indicates prenatal and early postnatal vitamin-D deficiency increases autism risk, probably through multiple effects, including impaired brain development and increased de novo mutations. High autism rates in several genetically based hypomelanotic skin disorders are puzzling, because ultraviolet-B radiation (UVB) in sunlight acting on skin is a key source of vitamin-D, and lighter skin protects against vitamin-D deficiency, especially at high latitudes. We consider two hypotheses to help explain autism's co-morbidity with hypomelanosis. 1) Because genetic and epigenetic variants that produce hypomelanosis help protect against vitamin-D deficiency, they increase reproductive fitness of individuals who also have other autism risk factors. 2) Hypomelanotic children have increased autism risk because photosensitivity and skin-cancer concerns lead families to excessively reduce children's sun exposure. Hypothesis testing could involve studies comparing genomes, epigenetic markers, skin pigmentation, and vitamin-D levels in autistic individuals with and without hypomelanosis, their relatives and controls. Conducting such studies in samples from regions that differ widely in UVB availability would provide particularly valuable data. Support for either hypothesis would elucidate vitamin-D's role in autism and suggest vitamin-D enhancement may aid treatment and prevention of autism.
PMCID: PMC3177756  PMID: 21949515
7.  Perinatal Programming of Asthma: The Role of Gut Microbiota 
Perinatal programming, a dominant theory for the origins of cardiovascular disease, proposes that environmental stimuli influence developmental pathways during critical periods of prenatal and postnatal development, inducing permanent changes in metabolism. In this paper, we present evidence for the perinatal programming of asthma via the intestinal microbiome. While epigenetic mechanisms continue to provide new explanations for the programming hypothesis of asthma development, it is increasingly apparent that the intestinal microbiota plays an independent and potentially interactive role. Commensal gut bacteria are essential to immune system development, and exposures disrupting the infant gut microbiota have been linked to asthma. This paper summarizes the recent findings that implicate caesarean delivery, breastfeeding, perinatal stress, probiotics, and antibiotics as modifiers of infant gut microbiota in the development of asthma.
PMCID: PMC3216351  PMID: 22110540
8.  Sex-Specific Programming of Offspring Emotionality Following Stress Early in Pregnancy 
Prenatal stress is associated with an increased vulnerability to neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and schizophrenia. To determine the critical time window when fetal antecedents may induce a disease predisposition, we examined behavioral responses in offspring exposed to stress during early, mid, and late gestation. We found that male offspring exposed to stress early in gestation displayed maladaptive behavioral stress-responsivity, anhedonia, and an increased sensitivity to SSRI treatment. Long-term alterations in central corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and glucocorticoid receptor (GR) expression, as well as increased HPA axis responsivity were present in these mice and likely contributed to an elevated stress-sensitivity. Changes in CRF and GR gene methylation correlated with altered gene expression, providing important evidence of epigenetic programming during early prenatal stress. In addition, we found the core mechanism underlying male vulnerability may involve sex-specific placenta responsivity, where stress early in pregnancy significantly increased expression of PPARα, IGFBP-1, HIF3α, and GLUT4 in male placentas but not females. Examination of placental epigenetic machinery revealed basal sex-differences, providing further evidence that sex-specific programming begins very early in pregnancy, and may contribute to the timing and vulnerability of the developing fetus to maternal perturbations. Overall, these results indicate that stress experience early in pregnancy may contribute to male neurodevelopmental disorders through impacts on placental function and fetal development.
PMCID: PMC2731562  PMID: 18768700
Placenta; Neurodevelopment; DNA methylation; Prenatal stress; Depression; Affective disorders
9.  Prenatal Exposure to Maternal Depressed Mood and the MTHFR C677T Variant Affect SLC6A4 Methylation in Infants at Birth 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(8):e12201.
Prenatal and early postnatal exposure to maternal depression may “program” childhood behavior via epigenetic processes such as DNA methylation. Methylenetetrahydro-folate reductase (MTHFR) is an important enzyme in the generation of methyl groups for DNA methylation. The common MTHFR C677T variant is associated with depression in men and non-pregnant women, and with global changes in DNA methylation. This study investigated the effect of maternal MTHFR C677T genotype on antenatal maternal mood, and their impact on the gene-specific methylation in pregnant women and their newborn infants. The methylation status of SLC6A4, which encodes the transmembrane serotonin transporter, and BDNF, which encodes brain derived neurotrophic factor, were assessed because of their potential role in behaviour.
Methods/Principal Findings
Depressed mood was assessed by the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) and the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAM-D) in women (n = 82, all taking folate) during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy. The methylation status of SLC6A4 and BDNF were assessed in 3rd trimester maternal peripheral leukocytes and in umbilical cord leukocytes collected from their infants at birth. Women with the MTHFR 677TT genotype had greater 2nd trimester depressed mood (p<0.05). Increased 2nd trimester maternal depressed mood (EPDS scores) was associated with decreased maternal and infant SLC6A4 promoter methylation (p<0.05), but had no effect on BDNF promoter methylation.
These findings show that the MTHFR C677T variant is associated with greater depressed mood during pregnancy. We further showed that prenatal exposure to maternal depressed mood affects gene-specific DNA methylation patterns. These findings support the concept that alterations in epigenetic processes may contribute to developmental programming of behaviour by maternal depression.
PMCID: PMC2922376  PMID: 20808944
10.  Gender-Specific Effect of Mthfr Genotype and Neonatal Vigabatrin Interaction on Synaptic Proteins in Mouse Cortex 
Neuropsychopharmacology  2011;36(8):1714-1728.
The enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) is a part of the homocysteine and folate metabolic pathways, affecting the methylations of DNA, RNA, and proteins. Mthfr deficiency was reported as a risk factor for neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. Neonatal disruption of the GABAergic system is also associated with behavioral outcomes. The interaction between the epigenetic influence of Mthfr deficiency and neonatal exposure to the GABA potentiating drug vigabatrin (GVG) in mice has been shown to have gender-dependent effects on mice anxiety and to have memory impairment effects in a gender-independent manner. Here we show that Mthfr deficiency interacts with neonatal GABA potentiation to alter social behavior in female, but not male, mice. This impairment was associated with a gender-dependent enhancement of proteins implicated in excitatory synapse plasticity in the female cortex. Reelin and fragile X mental retardation 1 protein (FMRP) levels and membrane GluR1/GluR2 ratios were elevated in wild-type mice treated neonatally with GVG and in Mthfr+/− mice treated with saline, but not in Mthfr+/− mice treated with GVG, compared with control groups (wild type treated with saline). A minor influence on the levels of these proteins was observed in male mice cortices, possibly due to high basal protein levels. Interaction between gender, genotype, and treatment was also observed in the GABA pathway. In female mice, GABA Aα2/gephyrin ratios were suppressed in all test groups; in male mice, a genotype-specific enhancement of GABA Aα2/gephyrin was observed. The lack of an effect on either reln or Fmr1 transcription suggests post-transcriptional regulation of these genes. Taken together, these findings suggest that Mthfr deficiency may interact with neonatal GABA potentiation in a gender-dependent manner to interrupt synaptic function. This may illustrate a possible mechanism for the epigenetic involvement of Mthfr deficiency in neurodevelopmental disorders.
PMCID: PMC3138666  PMID: 21490592
sociability; cerebral cortex; FMR1; reelin; GluR1; development/developmental disorders; GABA; psychiatry and behavioral sciences; animal models; sociability; cerebral cortex; GluR1; FMR1; reelin
11.  Epigenetics and Neural Developmental Disorders: Washington DC, September 18 and 19, 2006 
Neural developmental disorders, such as autism, Rett Syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and Angelman syndrome manifest during early postnatal neural development. Although the genes responsible for some of these disorders have been identified, how the mutations of these genes affect neural development is currently unclear. Emerging evidence suggest that these disorders share common underlying defects in neuronal morphology, synaptic connectivity and brain plasticity. In particular, alterations in dendritic branching and spine morphology play a central role in the pathophysiology of most mental retardation disorders, suggesting that common pathways regulating neuronal function may be affected. Epigenetic modulations, mediated by DNA methylation, RNA-associated silencing, and histone modification, can serve as an intermediate process that imprints dynamic environmental experiences on the “fixed” genome, resulting in stable alterations in phenotypes. Disturbance in epigenetic regulations can lead to inappropriate expression or silencing of genes, causing an array of multi-system disorders and neoplasias. Rett syndrome, the most common form of mental retardation in young girls, is due to l mutation of MECP2, encoding a methylated DNA binding protein that translates DNA methylation into gene repression. Angelman syndrome is due to faulty genomic imprinting or maternal mutations in UBE3A. Fragile X Syndrome, in most cases, results from the hypermethylation of FMR1 promoter, hence the loss of expression of functional FMRP protein. Autism, with its complex etiology, may have strong epigenetic link. Together, these observations strongly suggest that epigenetic mechanisms may play a critical role in brain development and etiology of related disorders. This report summarizes the scientific discussions and major conclusions from a recent conference that aimed to gain insight into the common molecular pathways affected among these disorders and discover potential therapeutic targets that have been missed by looking at one disorder at a time.
PMCID: PMC2700626  PMID: 17965627
Epigenetic; DNA methylation; chromatin; development; Rett Syndrome; Fragile X syndrome; Angelman syndrome; autism; neuronal maturation; synaptogenesis
12.  Habituation of exploratory behaviour in VPA rats: animal model of autism 
Interdisciplinary Toxicology  2013;6(4):222-227.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder with multifactorial aetiology, represented as impairment in social behaviour, communication and the occurrence of repetitive activities, which can be observed in the early life. The core features are frequently accompanied by other manifestations, including limited environmental exploration. The aim of the presented study, realised on an animal model of autism – VPA rats, i.e. animals prenatally affected with valproic acid on gestation day 12.5, was to investigate the habituation process of exploratory activity (manifested by a gradual decrease in the intensity of locomotor activity), which reflects the stage of the central nervous system. VPA rats were tested in open-field in three developmental periods – weaning (postnatal day 21 – PND 21), puberty (PND 42) and adulthood (PND 72). In each period of ontogenesis, the rapidity of habituation was evaluated by using the method of linear regression. Compared to controls, VPA rats showed a significant decrease in the intensity and an increase in the rapidity of exploratory activity habituation during puberty and adulthood. Our results indicate that the animal model of autism, i.e. VPA rats, showed disabilities in the development of the nervous system. These findings can help confirm not only the validity of this animal model of autism but can also help better understand neuronal changes in humans with autism.
PMCID: PMC3945762  PMID: 24678262
autism; animal model; VPA rats; exploratory behaviour; habituation
13.  Early-life stress impacts the developing hippocampus and primes seizure occurrence: cellular, molecular, and epigenetic mechanisms 
Early-life stress includes prenatal, postnatal, and adolescence stress. Early-life stress can affect the development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and cause cellular and molecular changes in the developing hippocampus that can result in neurobehavioral changes later in life. Epidemiological data implicate stress as a cause of seizures in both children and adults. Emerging evidence indicates that both prenatal and postnatal stress can prime the developing brain for seizures and an increase in epileptogenesis. This article reviews the cellular and molecular changes encountered during prenatal and postnatal stress, and assesses the possible link between these changes and increases in seizure occurrence and epileptogenesis in the developing hippocampus. In addititon, the priming effect of prenatal and postnatal stress for seizures and epileptogenesis is discussed. Finally, the roles of epigenetic modifications in hippocampus and HPA axis programming, early-life stress, and epilepsy are discussed.
PMCID: PMC3918912  PMID: 24574961
early-life stress; epigenetic; epileptogenesis; hippocampus; hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; prenatal stress; postnatal stress; seizure
14.  The loss of methyl-CpG binding protein 1 leads to autism-like behavioral deficits 
Human molecular genetics  2008;17(13):2047-2057.
Methyl-CpG binding proteins (MBDs) are central components of DNA methylation-mediated epigenetic gene regulation. Alterations of epigenetic pathways are known to be associated with several neurodevelopmental disorders, particularly autism. Our previous studies showed that the loss of Mbd1 led to reduced hippocampal neurogenesis and impaired learning in mice. However, whether MBD1 regulates the autism-related cognitive functions remains unknown. Here we show that Mbd1 mutant (Mbd1−/−) mice exhibit several core deficits frequently associated with autism, including reduced social interaction, learning deficits, anxiety, defective sensory motor gating, depression and abnormal brain serotonin activity. Furthermore, we find that Mbd1 can directly regulate the expression of Htr2c, one of the serotonin receptors, by binding to its promoter, and the loss of Mbd1 led to elevated expression of Htr2c. Our results, therefore, demonstrate the importance of epigenetic regulation in mammalian brain development and cognitive functions. Understanding how the loss of Mbd1 could lead to autism-like behavioral phenotypes would reveal much-needed information about the molecular pathogenesis of autism.
PMCID: PMC2700628  PMID: 18385101
15.  The loss of methyl-CpG binding protein 1 leads to autism-like behavioral deficits 
Human Molecular Genetics  2008;17(13):2047-2057.
Methyl-CpG binding proteins (MBDs) are central components of DNA methylation-mediated epigenetic gene regulation. Alterations of epigenetic pathways are known to be associated with several neurodevelopmental disorders, particularly autism. Our previous studies showed that the loss of Mbd1 led to reduced hippocampal neurogenesis and impaired learning in mice. However, whether MBD1 regulates the autism-related cognitive functions remains unknown. Here we show that Mbd1 mutant (Mbd1−/−) mice exhibit several core deficits frequently associated with autism, including reduced social interaction, learning deficits, anxiety, defective sensory motor gating, depression and abnormal brain serotonin activity. Furthermore, we find that Mbd1 can directly regulate the expression of Htr2c, one of the serotonin receptors, by binding to its promoter, and the loss of Mbd1 led to elevated expression of Htr2c. Our results, therefore, demonstrate the importance of epigenetic regulation in mammalian brain development and cognitive functions. Understanding how the loss of Mbd1 could lead to autism-like behavioral phenotypes would reveal much-needed information about the molecular pathogenesis of autism.
PMCID: PMC2700628  PMID: 18385101
16.  Environmental Factors in Autism 
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impairments in communication and social behavior, and by repetitive behaviors. Although genetic factors might be largely responsible for the occurrence of autism they cannot fully account for all cases and it is likely that in addition to a certain combination of autism-related genes, specific environmental factors might act as risk factors triggering the development of autism. Thus, the role of environmental factors in autism is an important area of research and recent data will be discussed in this review. Interestingly, the results show that many environmental risk factors are interrelated and their identification and comparison might unveil a common scheme of alterations on a contextual as well as molecular level. For example, both, disruption in the immune system and in zinc homeostasis may affect synaptic transmission in autism. Thus, here, a model is proposed that interconnects the most important and scientifically recognized environmental factors. Moreover, similarities in how these risk factors impact synapse function are discussed and a possible influence on an already well described genetic pathway leading to the development of autism via zinc homeostasis is proposed.
PMCID: PMC3548163  PMID: 23346059
zinc deficiency; immune system; cytokines; ASD; Shank3; melatonin; risk factor
17.  Neonatal Behavioral Changes in Rats With Gestational Exposure to Lipopolysaccharide: A Prenatal Infection Model for Developmental Neuropsychiatric Disorders 
Schizophrenia Bulletin  2010;38(3):444-456.
Exposure to prenatal infections has been widely associated with the increased risk for neuropsychiatric disorders of developmental origin such as schizophrenia and autism. Although several behavioral and cognitive deficits have been detected during adulthood in rodent models of prenatal infections, early behavioral changes have not been well characterized. In a prenatal lipopolysaccharide (LPS) model, we have previously observed significant alterations in the neuronal cytoarchitecture during early postnatal life. In the present study, we aimed to investigate the potential effects of prenatal immune activation on early neurophenotypic presentations using a set of behavioral test battery. Female Sprague-Dawley rats were administered with 100 μg/kg LPS (intraperitoneally) at gestational days 15 and 16. During the first postnatal week, we found no significant effect on maternal behavior or mother-pup interaction by this treatment. Also, no major changes in physical developmental milestones of pups were noted from postnatal (P) days P6 to P16. Importantly, prenatal LPS-exposed pups had a significant decrease in the number and duration of ultrasonic vocalization calls at P3 and P5. Prenatal LPS treatment also led to impairments in nest-seeking behavior and odor-stroke associative learning in neonatal rats at P8 and P9. At the molecular level, we detected significant decrease in the expression of cortical 5HT1A and 5HT1B messenger RNA at P3. These data suggest that prenatal exposure to an immune activator can significantly impair the social/communicative behavior in the neonate offspring, which may be relevant to childhood and premorbid abnormalities reported in autism and schizophrenia subjects.
PMCID: PMC3329978  PMID: 20805287
schizophrenia; immune activation; autism; serotonin; premorbid
18.  Influence of Prenatal Lead Exposure on Genomic Methylation of Cord Blood DNA 
Environmental Health Perspectives  2009;117(9):1466-1471.
Fetal lead exposure is associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes and developmental and cognitive deficits; however, the mechanism(s) by which lead-induced toxicity occurs remains unknown. Epigenetic fetal programming via DNA methylation may provide a pathway by which environmental lead exposure can influence disease susceptibility.
This study was designed to determine whether prenatal lead exposure is associated with alterations in genomic methylation of leukocyte DNA levels from umbilical cord samples.
We measured genomic DNA methylation, as assessed by Alu and LINE-1 (long interspersed nuclear element-1) methylation via pyrosequencing, on 103 umbilical cord blood samples from the biorepository of the Early Life Exposures in Mexico to Environmental Toxicants (ELEMENT) study group. Prenatal lead exposure had been assessed by measuring maternal bone lead levels at the mid-tibial shaft and the patella using a spot-source 109Cd K-shell X-ray fluorescence instrument.
We found an inverse dose–response relationship in which quartiles of patella lead correlated with cord LINE-1 methylation (p for trend = 0.01) and and tibia lead correlated with Alu methylation (p for trend = 0.05). In mixed effects regression models, maternal tibia lead was negatively associated with umbilical cord genomic DNA methylation of Alu (β= −0.027; p = 0.01). We found no associations between cord blood lead and cord genomic DNA methylation.
Prenatal lead exposure is inversely associated with genomic DNA methylation in cord blood. These data suggest that the epigenome of the developing fetus can be influenced by maternal cumulative lead burden, which may influence long-term epigenetic programming and disease susceptibility throughout the life course.
PMCID: PMC2737027  PMID: 19750115
blood lead; bone lead; DNA methylation; early life; epigenetics; fetal programming; genomic DNA methylation; intergenerational; lead exposure; life course; Mexico
19.  Intracellular and Extracellular Redox Status and Free Radical Generation in Primary Immune Cells from Children with Autism 
Autism Research and Treatment  2011;2012:986519.
The modulation of the redox microenvironment is an important regulator of immune cell activation and proliferation. To investigate immune cell redox status in autism we quantified the intracellular glutathione redox couple (GSH/GSSG) in resting peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), activated monocytes and CD4 T cells and the extracellular cysteine/cystine redox couple in the plasma from 43 children with autism and 41 age-matched control children. Resting PBMCs and activated monocytes from children with autism exhibited significantly higher oxidized glutathione (GSSG) and percent oxidized glutathione equivalents and decreased glutathione redox status (GSH/GSSG). In activated CD4 T cells from children with autism, the percent oxidized glutathione equivalents were similarly increased, and GSH and GSH/GSSG were decreased. In the plasma, both glutathione and cysteine redox ratios were decreased in autistic compared to control children. Consistent with decreased intracellular and extracellular redox status, generation of free radicals was significantly elevated in lymphocytes from the autistic children. These data indicate primary immune cells from autistic children have a more oxidized intracellular and extracellular microenvironment and a deficit in glutathione-mediated redox/antioxidant capacity compared to control children. These results suggest that the loss of glutathione redox homeostasis and chronic oxidative stress may contribute to immune dysregulation in autism.
PMCID: PMC3420377  PMID: 22928106
20.  Developmental programming and hypertension 
Purpose of review
There is a growing body of evidence linking adverse events or exposures during early life and adult-onset diseases. After important epidemiological studies from many parts of the world, research now focuses on mechanisms of organ dysfunction and on refining the understanding of the interaction between common elements of adverse perinatal conditions, such as nutrition, oxidants, and toxins exposures. This review will focus on advances in our comprehension of developmental programming of hypertension.
Recent findings
Recent studies have unraveled important mechanisms of oligonephronia and impaired renal function, altered vascular function and structure as well as sympathetic regulation of the cardiovascular system. Furthermore, interactions between prenatal insults and postnatal conditions are the subject of intensive research. Prematurity vs. intrauterine growth restriction modulate differently programming of high blood pressure. Along with antenatal exposure to glucocorticoids and imbalanced nutrition, a critical role for perinatal oxidative stress is emerging.
While the complexity of the interactions between antenatal and postnatal influences on adult blood pressure is increasingly recognized, the importance of postnatal life in (positively) modulating developmental programming offers the hope of a critical window of opportunity to reverse programming and prevent or reduce related adult-onset diseases.
PMCID: PMC2782679  PMID: 19434052
gender difference; kidneys; oxidative stress; sympathetic nervous system; vascular function; vascular structure
21.  Immunologic and Neurodevelopmental Susceptibilities of Autism 
Neurotoxicology  2008;29(3):531-544.
Symposium 5 focused on research approaches that are aimed at understanding common patterns of immunological and neurological dysfunction contributing to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and ADHD. The session focused on genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors that might act in concert to influence autism risk, severity and co-morbidities, and immunological and neurobiological targets as etiologic contributors. The immune system of children at risk of autism may be therefore especially susceptible to psychological stressors, exposure to chemical triggers, and infectious agents. Identifying early biomarkers of risk provides tangible approaches toward designing studies in animals and humans that yield a better understanding of environmental risk factors, and can help identify rational intervention strategies to mitigate these risks.
PMCID: PMC2475601  PMID: 18394707
22.  The Neurology of Autism Spectrum Disorders 
Current opinion in neurology  2011;24(2):132-139.
Purpose of review
Neurological comorbidities in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are not only common, but they are also associated with more clinical severity. This review highlights the most recent literature on three of autism’s most prevalent neurological comorbidities: motor impairment, sleep disorders, and epilepsy.
Recent findings
Motor impairment in ASD manifests as both delays and deficits, with delays found in gross and fine motor domains and deficits found in praxis, coordination, and gait, all of which affect other cognitive and behavioral domains. Sleep disorders, especially insomnia, occur in up to 83% of children with ASD and recent studies have begun to explore the underlying biochemical and behavioral basis of the impairment, which has bolstered treatment studies. Epilepsy is reported in up to one-third of children with ASD, and new studies have focused on identifying the genetic causes of this association.
Better characterization of the phenotype, developmental trajectory, and underlying pathophysiology of these neurological comorbidities will enable us to define neurological endophenotypes within the autism spectrum. Future studies must investigate the emergence of these comorbidities prospectively in order to determine whether they lie on the causal pathway to ASD or whether they reflect epiphenomena of the disorder. Since epilepsy and sleep disorders can be treated and may contribute significantly to behavioral and cognitive abnormalities in ASD, their identification is of high clinical relevance.
PMCID: PMC3160764  PMID: 21293268
autism; neurology; motor; sleep; epilepsy; endophenotype
23.  Epigenetic Findings in Autism: New Perspectives for Therapy 
Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are complex neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by dysfunctions in social interactions, communications, restricted interests, and repetitive stereotypic behaviors. Despite extensive genetic and biological research, significant controversy surrounds our understanding of the specific mechanisms of their pathogenesis. However, accumulating evidence points to the involvement of epigenetic modifications as foundational in creating ASD pathophysiology. Epigenetic modifications or the alteration of DNA transcription via variations in DNA methylation and histone modifications but without alterations in the DNA sequence, affect gene regulation. These alterations in gene expression, obtained through DNA methylation and/or histone modifications, result from transcriptional regulatory influences of environmental factors, such as nutritional deficiencies, various toxicants, immunological effects, and pharmaceuticals. As such these effects are epigenetic regulators which determine the final biochemistry and physiology of the individual. In contrast to psychopharmacological interventions, bettering our understanding of how these gene-environmental interactions create autistic symptoms should facilitate the development of therapeutic targeting of gene expression for ASD biomedical care.
PMCID: PMC3799534  PMID: 24030655
autism; gene expression; environmental factors
24.  Rett syndrome astrocytes are abnormal and spread MeCP2 deficiency through gap junctions 
MECP2, an X-linked gene encoding the epigenetic factor methyl-CpG-binding protein-2, is mutated in Rett syndrome (RTT) and aberrantly expressed in autism. Most children affected by RTT are heterozygous Mecp2−/+ females whose brain function is impaired postnatally due to MeCP2 deficiency. While prior functional investigations of MeCP2 have focused exclusively on neurons and have concluded the absence of MeCP2 in astrocytes, here we report that astrocytes express MeCP2, and MeCP2 deficiency in astrocytes causes significant abnormalities in BDNF regulation, cytokine production, and neuronal dendritic induction, effects that may contribute to abnormal neurodevelopment. In addition, we show that the MeCP2 deficiency state can progressively spread at least in part via gap junction communications between mosaic Mecp2−/+ astrocytes in a novel non-cell autonomous mechanism. This mechanism may lead to the pronounced loss of MeCP2 observed selectively in astrocytes in mouse Mecp2−/+ brain, which is coincident with phenotypic regression characteristic of RTT. Our results suggest that astrocytes are viable therapeutic targets for RTT and perhaps regressive forms of autism.
PMCID: PMC3436907  PMID: 19386901
astrocytes; Rett; autism; gap; mice; regression
25.  Epigenetic Perspective on the Developmental Effects of Bisphenol A 
Brain, behavior, and immunity  2011;25(6):1084-1093.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is an estrogenic environmental toxin widely used in the production of plastics and ubiquitous human exposure to this chemical has been proposed to be a potential risk to public health. Animal studies suggest that in utero and early postnatal exposure to this compound may produce a broad range of adverse effects, including impaired brain development, sexual differentiation, behavior, and immune function, which could extend to future generations. Molecular mechanisms that underlie the long-lasting effects of BPA continue to be elucidated, and likely involve disruption of epigenetic programming of gene expression during development. Several studies have provided evidence that maternal exposure to BPA results in postnatal changes in DNA methylation status and altered expression of specific genes in offspring. However, further studies are needed to extend these initial findings to other genes in different tissues, and to examine the correlations between BPA-induced epigenetic alterations, changes in gene expression, and various phenotypic outcomes. It will be also important to explore whether the epigenetic effects of BPA are related to its estrogenic activity, and to determine which downstream effector proteins could mediate changes in DNA methylation. In this review, we will highlight research indicating a consequence of prenatal BPA exposure for brain, behavior, and immune outcomes and discuss evidence for the role of epigenetic pathways in shaping these developmental effects. Based on this evidence, we will suggest future directions in the study of BPA-induced epigenetic effects and discuss the transgenerational implications of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals.
PMCID: PMC3703316  PMID: 21333735
bisphenol A; DNA methylation; gene expression; epigenome; estrogen receptor; brain development; behavior; immune; endocrine disruptor; transgenerational

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