Showing posts with label Steroids. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steroids. Show all posts

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Activated Microglia and Inflammation in Autism

There have been yet more autism studies recently, highlighting neuroinflammation and the role of cells called microglia.  The result is this rather long post; but there is film to watch, if it gets heavy going.

Glia derives from a Greek word for glue. The original thought was that the glial cells “glued” the neurons together.

It turned out that glial cells do very much more and might be better thought of as “resident immune cells”.  They have other functions including synaptic pruning, which appears to have gone awry in autism.  They also form myelin, and when this goes wrong, big problems follow.

Microglia are inside the blood brain barrier and one of their jobs is to swallow up any foreign bodies that should not be there, before they can do damage.  It appears that this process is mainly modulated via potassium channels.  The majority of research focuses on the calcium-activated K+ channels, particularly KCNN4/KCa2 and 3.1, and ATP-sensitive K+ channels (KATP).  Administration of diazoxide, a classic KATP channel activator, is shown to reduce microglial activation and is neuroprotective in a variety of models involving neuroinflammation. 

However, Kv 1.3 and Kv 1.5 are also involved in activated glia.  We have seen in earlier posts, that blocking Kv 1.3 can be effective in autism (remember those TSO worms).

For the scientists among you:-

Synaptic pruning

A very small Acer Palmatum

Synaptic pruning could itself be the subject of an entire blog.  I will just use the analogy of a different kind of pruning.

With ornamental trees, to obtain the perfect form, pruning is very important.  You have to clear away the dead wood and encourage growth in particular areas to achieve the optimal shape.  You need to know when to cut, where to cut and how much to cut.

The human brain develops with far too many synapses and they too need pruning.  The weak ones need to give way for the strong ones to prosper.  Too many synapses lead to poor brain function.  This process is going on from childhood to early adulthood.  Microglia are heavily involved in this pruning process, as you will see in the video shortly.

We know that synaptic pruning is implicated in autism and very likely in its big brother, schizophrenia.

Activation of Microglia

Microglia can be in either a resting or activated state. In the activated state, for no good reason, they can do damage.  They can also react with mast cells to produce more inflammation.

(here is a link for the mast cell followers of Theoharides; they know who they are)

The subject is very complex.  For those with an hour to spare there is an excellent presentation by Beth Stevens from Harvard.  Click on the link below to go to the SFARI website and the video.

By a bizarre coincidence, there is another B Stevens researching glial cells and autism.  This time it is Bruce Stevens, in Florida.

His paper is interesting because he is using a known anti-oxidant (alpha lipoic acid, ALA) to affect brain glial cells.

One of the odd things is that we know in autism there is both oxidative stress and neuro-inflammation; they are a self-perpetuation combination.  There are numerous effective anti-oxidants; almost too many.  There is, however, a paucity of effective, safe, anti-inflammatory drugs.  In fact the best anti-inflammatory drug is probably an anti-oxidant.  So called Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) are among the biggest causes of neuroinflammation.  With anti-oxidants you can neutralize the ROS, and thereby you take a big bite out of the neuroinflammation.

Double-stranded RNAs (dsRNA) serve as viral ligands that trigger innate immunity in astrocytes and microglial, as mediated through Toll-like receptor 3 (TLR3) and dsRNA-dependent protein kinase (PKR). Beneficial transient TLR3 and PKR anti-viral signaling can become deleterious when events devolve into inflammation and cytotoxicity. Viral products in the brain cause glial cell dysfunction, and are a putative etiologic factor in neuropsychiatric disorders, notably schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Parkinson's, and autism spectrum. Alpha-lipoic acid (LA) has been proposed as a possible therapeutic neuroprotectant. The objective of this study was to test our hypothesis that LA can control untoward antiviral mechanisms associated with neural dysfunction. Utilizing rat brain glial cultures (91% astrocytes:9% microglia) treated with PKR- and TLR3-ligand/viral mimetic dsRNA, polyinosinic-polycytidylic acid (polyI:C), we report in vitro glial antiviral signaling and LA reduction of the effects of this signaling. LA blunted the dsRNA-stimulated expression of IFNα/β-inducible genes Mx1, PKR, and TLR3. And in polyI:C treated cells, LA promoted gene expression of rate-limiting steps that benefit healthy neural redox status in glutamateric systems. To this end, LA decreased dsRNA-induced inflammatory signaling by downregulating IL-1β, IL-6, TNFα, iNOS, and CAT2 transcripts. In the presence of polyI:C, LA prevented cultured glial cytotoxicity which was correlated with increased expression of factors known to cooperatively control glutamate/cysteine/glutathione redox cycling, namely glutamate uptake transporter GLAST/EAAT1, γ-glutamyl cysteine ligase catalytic and regulatory subunits, and IL-10. Glutamate exporting transporter subunits 4F2hc and xCT were downregulated by LA in dsRNA-stimulated glia. l-Glutamate net uptake was inhibited by dsRNA, and this was relieved by LA. Glutathione synthetase mRNA levels were unchanged by dsRNA or LA. This study demonstrates the protective effects of LA in astroglial/microglial cultures, and suggests the potential for LA efficacy in virus-induced CNS pathologies, with the caveat that antiviral benefits are concomitantly blunted. It is concluded that LA averts key aspects of TLR3- and PKR-provoked glial dysfunction, and provides rationale for exploring LA in whole animal and human clinical studies to blunt or avert neuropsychiatric disorders

The obvious question is whether other antioxidants have the same effect.  Most likely nobody knows.  I did ask both B Stevens #1 and B Stevens #2 for their thoughts on this – so far no answer.

Brain inflammation a hallmark of autism, according to large-scale analysis

Finally to the subject of this post, the recent Johns Hopkins study that shows inflammation in the autistic brain.

This is the press release from Johns Hopkins so it is quite readable.

While many different combinations of genetic traits can cause autism, brains affected by autism share a pattern of ramped-up immune responses, an analysis of data from autopsied human brains reveals. The study, a collaborative effort between Johns Hopkins and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, included data from 72 autism and control brains. It was published online today in the journal Nature Communications.

There are many different ways of getting autism, but we found that they all have the same downstream effect,” says
Dan Arking, Ph.D., an associate professor in the McKusick-Nathans Institute for Genetic Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “What we don’t know is whether this immune response is making things better in the short term and worse in the long term.”

The causes of autism, also known as autistic spectrum disorder, remain largely unknown and are a frequent research topic for geneticists and neuroscientists. But Arking had noticed that for autism, studies of whether and how much genes were being used — known as gene expression — had thus far involved too little data to draw many useful conclusions. That’s because unlike a genetic test, which can be done using nearly any cells in the body, gene expression testing has to be performed on the specific tissue of interest — in this case, brains that could only be obtained through autopsies.

To combat this problem, Arking and his colleagues analyzed gene expression in samples from two different tissue banks, comparing gene expression in people with autism to that in controls without the condition. All told, they analyzed data from 104 brain samples from 72 individuals — the largest data set so far for a study of gene expression in autism.

Previous studies had identified autism-associated abnormalities in cells that support neurons in the brain and spinal cord. In this study, Arking says, the research team was able to narrow in on a specific type of support cell known as a microglial cell, which polices the brain for pathogens and other threats. In the autism brains, the microglia appeared to be perpetually activated, with their genes for inflammation responses turned on. “This type of inflammation is not well understood, but it highlights the lack of current understanding about how innate immunity controls neural circuits,” says Andrew West, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who was involved in the study.

Arking notes that, given the known genetic contributors to autism, inflammation is unlikely to be its root cause. Rather, he says, “This is a downstream consequence of upstream gene mutation.” The next step, he says, would be to find out whether treating the inflammation could ameliorate symptoms of autism.

The full study is here:-

What I liked about the study was the comment made by Arking, a specialist in genetics, that it did not seem to matter what the genetic cause was, all the brain samples exhibited the same inflammation.  So it does not matter which of millions of possible combinations of genetic dysfunction is present, one key physiological result is shared neuroinflammation.

Take home message:  Treat the neuroinflammation in people with Autism.

The question of course is how.

Since it seems easy to treat oxidative stress, a leading cause of neuroinflammation, we should go to extreme lengths to finish that job. 

I started it with NAC and recently added Sulforaphane/broccoli.  I suspect there are more “low hanging fruit” to be gathered here. Perhaps just an additional supplemental (exogenous) antioxidants, or perhaps something clever like increasing the amount DJ-1, which is needed to support Nrf2 which turns on the anti-oxidant genes. Early 2015 will see my oxidative stress therapy optimized.

Treating Neuroinflammation in Autism

There are lots of possible ways to treat neuroinflammation, some of which we have already covered in this blog.  Sometimes it gets called immunomodulatory therapy.

There are some natural options like quercetin and turmeric.  Turmeric is also possibly chemo-protective:-

“Currently there is no research evidence to show that turmeric or curcumin can prevent or treat cancer but early trials have shown some promising results.”

Cancer Research UK

Interestingly, people who eat a lot of curry (Indians) have a very low incidence of cancer.

1.     Steroids, like Prednisone

These are already used, particularly in regressive autism.  They are potent, but have side effects.

2.     Blockers of Potassium channel Kv1.3

This is a clever approach, since it appears that this potassium channel is involved in mediating the inflammatory response. By blocking these channels the response we have seen that the immune response can be moderated and in some people, there autism moderated.

3.     Activators of Potassium channel KATP

We learned earlier in this post about diazoxide

4.     Other Microglial Ion Channels

The various other potassium, calcium and sodium channels need to be considered.

5.     Ibuprofen

This common painkiller reduces inflammation and is used to reduce inflammation associated with autism secondary to mitochondrial disease.

Do not use acetaminophen/paracetamol/Tylenol.  These will increase oxidative stress, since it depletes GSH and also affect mitochondria.

6.     Leukotriene receptor inhibitors (i.e. montelukast, zafirlukast)

These are interesting because they are used to treat asthma and so are very widely used. They are not steroids and so do not have their side effects.  They are proved to have anti-inflammatory effects.

Montelukast/Zafirlukast is used to reduce inflammation associated with autism secondary to mitochondrial disease.

7.     Pregnenolone

I wrote a post a while back on Pregnenolone, which is interesting, since you do not need a prescription.  But does it work?

Well, after I wrote the post below, the results from a clinical trial in adults with autism was finally published.

The objective of this study was to assess the tolerability and efficacy of pregnenolone in reducing irritability in adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This was a pilot, open-label, 12-week trial that included twelve subjects with a mean age of 22.5 ± 5.8 years. Two participants dropped out of the study due to reasons unrelated to adverse effects. Pregnenolone yielded a statistically significant improvement in the primary measure, Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC)-Irritability [from 17.4 ± 7.4 at baseline to 11.2 ± 7.0 at 12 weeks (p = 0.028)]. Secondary measures were not statistically significant with the exception of ABC-lethargy (p = 0.046) and total Short Sensory Profile score (p = 0.009). No significant vital sign changes occurred during this study. Pregnenolone was not associated with any severe side effects. Single episodes of tiredness, diarrhea and depressive affect that could be related to pregnenolone were reported. Overall, pregnenolone was modestly effective and well-tolerated in individuals with ASD.

Trial doses were:-

Days 1-14: 100 mg
Week 1 and 2: 200 mg
Week 3 and 4: 350 mg
Week 5 and 6: 400 mg
Week 7 -12: 500 mg

So it was modestly effective, but the doses were huge.  It is a hormone and our endocrinologist did not much approve of the idea.

I will give this idea a miss.

8.     Statins

The current treatment for neuroinflammation in my Polypill is Atorvastatin.

I have already written a great deal about why statins may be effective in some people with autism; just make sure you do not have low cholesterol or mitochondrial disease.

Arthritis is another disease mediated by inflammation:-

To me it is no surprise that statins have therapeutic value in rheumatoid arthritis.

9.     NF-κB inhibitors

Because NF-κB controls many genes involved in inflammation, it is not surprising that NF-κB is found to be chronically active in many inflammatory diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, sepsis, gastritis, asthma, atherosclerosis and others.

So perhaps NF-κB is for inflammation ,what Nrf2 is for oxidative stress, a force multiplier?

There are very many other inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and so it is quite a well-trod path looking for inhibitors of NF-κB.

Before we get into that, a quick check on what we already know from research to schizophrenia (adult-onset autism).

Many reports suggest that schizophrenia is associated with the inflammatory response mediated by cytokines, and nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kappaB) regulates the expression of cytokines. However, it remains unclear whether the interaction between NF-kappaB and cytokines is implicated in schizophrenia and whether the effect of neuroleptics treatment for 4 weeks is associated with the alteration of cytokines.
Sixty-five healthy subjects and 83 first-episode schizophrenic patients who met DSM-IV criteria and who were never treated with neuroleptics previously were included. Serum levels of cytokines such as interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) were examined by using sandwich enzyme immunoassay (EIA). Peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) mRNA expressions of cytokines (IL-1beta, TNF-alpha) and NF-kappaB were detected by using semiquantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). NF-kappaB activation was examined by using transcription factor assay kits.
Schizophrenic patients showed significantly higher serum levels and PBMC mRNA expressions of IL-1beta and TNF-alpha compared with healthy subjects. However, treatment with the neuroleptic risperidone for 4 weeks significantly decreased serum levels and PBMC mRNA expressions of IL-1beta in schizophrenic patients. NF-kappaB activation and PBMC mRNA expression in patients were significantly higher than those in healthy subjects. Furthermore, PBMC mRNA expressions of IL-1beta and TNF-alpha were positively correlated to NF-kappaB activation in both schizophrenic patients and healthy control subjects.
Schizophrenic patients showed activation of the cytokine system and immune disturbance. NF-kappaB activation may play a pivotal role in schizophrenia through interaction with cytokines.

It seems fair to conclude that NF-κB inhibitors are well worth investigating.

Interestingly, one of my new “pet” compounds, alpha lipoic acid appears to have another role here:-

Evidence that α-lipoic acid inhibitsNF-κB activation independent of its antioxidant function.



α-Lipoic acid (LA) exerts beneficial effects in cardiovascular diseases though its antioxidant and/or anti-inflammatory functions. It is postulated that the anti-inflammatory function of LA results from its antioxidant function. In this study we tested whether inhibition of NF-κB by LA is dependent on its antioxidant function.


Human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECs) were treated with tumor necrosis factor-α (TNFα) in the presence of various antioxidants, including LA, tiron, apocynin, and tempol. The activation of the nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB) signaling pathway was then analyzed.


LA, but not other tested antioxidants, inhibited TNFα-induced inhibitor-kappaB-α (IκBα) degradation and VCAM-1 and COX2 expression in HUVECs. Although LA activated the phosphatidylinositol-3-kinase (PI3-kinase)/Akt pathway in HUVECs, inhibition of Akt by LY294002 did not affect inhibition of TNFα-induced IκBα degradation by LA. In transient co-transfection assays of a constitutively active mutant of IκB kinase-2 (IKK2), IKK2(EE), and a NF-κB luciferase reporter construct, LA dose-dependently inhibited IKK2(EE)-induced NF-κB activation in addition to inhibiting IKK activity in in vitro assays. Consistent with the effect on luciferase expression, LA inhibited IKK2(EE)-induced cyclo-oxygenase-2 (COX2) expression, suggesting that IKK2 inhibition by LA may be a relevant mechanism that explains its anti-inflammatory effects.


LA inhibits NF-κB activation through antioxidant-independent and probably IKK-dependent mechanisms.


This really makes ALA look very interesting.  It is cheap, widely available and well tolerated.

10.       Low Dose Naltrextone                       

Your local doctor will probably tell you that Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) is a load of quack nonsense, partly because it is claimed to help so many unrelated disorders.

I would not have questioned that opinion, before I had started by investigation into the biology of the brain and seen how many apparently unrelated conditions are actually interrelated.  This can be established by science, not quackery.

First to note is that tiny doses of some substances do indeed sometimes have effects quite different to large doses.

We saw earlier how a tiny stimulation of the body’s nicotinic receptors produces a different effect to a large dose.

My own experience showed that a tiny, but specific, dose of Clonazepam has a marked effect, whereas conventional medical wisdom would say such a small dose would do absolutely nothing.  In this case, I was just following the clever idea of Professor Catterall, from the University of Washington.

I also found that tiny doses of a TRH analog had a positive effect and quite different to the “regular” dose.

The advocates of LDN suggest it for conditions including Crohn's disease, fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis (MS).  As I mentioned earlier in this blog, some Fibromyalgia appears to be a condition that was almost autism; perhaps the final hit, in a multiple-hit process failed to occur.  Crohn’s is an immune disease and is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).  MS is an inflammatory disease in which the insulating covers of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are damaged.

Preliminary research suggests LDN may have an effect on inflammation. Naltrexone has an antagonistic effect on Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4), which are found on microglia, which can modulate the body's response to inflammation. It has been hypothesized that LDN may have anti-inflammatory effects through this pathway.



The immediate conclusion is that there are plenty of ways, already existing, that might very well help reduce neuroinflammation in autism.  They just requires a little further thought and investigation.

The broader conclusion here is about the merit of genetic testing.

Undoubtedly, if you could analyze the entire genome in a person with autism and also measure the expression of those suspect genes in the brain, you would gain a great deal of information.  In a few cases, where there is a single gene causing the “autism”, you might well be able to figure out a therapy.

You cannot take brain biopsies from living people.  We did come across that clever Ricardo Dolmetsch, growing brain samples from skin cells.  He has now moved over to the private sector.

So for the moment genetic testing will just generate a vast amount of data, that in many cases will not be of any immediate clinical relevance.

The good news, as pointed out by Dan Arking, from Johns Hopkins, is that many of these numerous, unrelated, genetic dysfunctions end up with the same biological manifestations.

There may be thousands, or even millions of combinations, of genetic dysfunctions that lead to autism with neuro-inflammation.

You can go ahead and treat the neuro-inflammation, without any knowledge of exactly which gene has which SNP (single nucleotide polymorphisms)  or who had what CNV (copy number variant).

For me, the identification of so-called autism genes like PTEN and BCL2 is interesting, as are the single gene causes of autism.  We can then see that a reduced expression of that gene might contribute to autism, caused by multiple gene dysfunction (multiple-hits).  For the great majority of people with ASD, they have had multiple-hits.

I read Ricardo Dolmetsch’s Stanford research into Timothy syndrome, which is caused just by one gene, albeit a very important one.  I considered that perhaps a partial dysfunction might occur, leading to disturbance in the protein expressed by this gene.  I had no idea whether in my son this dysfunction existed, whether it might be caused by a SNP (there are several known ones) or if a dysfunction was caused as a consequence of a metabolic disruption caused by autism, such as oxidative stress or neuroinflammation,  affecting the function of an undamaged gene.

It did not matter; I just carried on and did a little practical test.  This led me to include Verapamil in my Polypill.  No genetic testing was required.

It was suggested to me that genetic testing might help point me in the right direction.  I think it would likely point me in all directions.  We all carry many genetic errors, and most of us thrive regardless, so most genetic errors are irrelevant.

The clever future diagnostic tool is proteomics.


From now, I will consider autism in terms of a manageable group of clusters.  Once you know, based on symptoms and some measurable biomarkers, which cluster you are in, you would have a good chance of predicting which drugs would be effective.

The underlying genetic causes may, or may not, overlap with other people in that cluster.

Some clusters may overlap. Note the case of siblings with autism, when one is early onset and the other is regressive.  Was the regressive one really symptom free early one? Or, was it just a second hit nudged him “over the edge” and then people noticed?

This would be a practical approach that could be used.  I think when people talk of phenotypes and autisms, they are thinking about very precise biological causes and then it just becomes too complicated to expect your local doctor to ever figure out.

90+% of people quite probably fit into a handful of clusters.  Then you just need a diagnostic flowchart leading to the relevant cluster and then a specific drug toolkit.

My Polypill is the drug toolkit for one cluster; and it is not a rare one.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

PANDAS, PANS, Penguins and Autism

Anyone with a serious interest in autism should also be aware of PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections) and PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome).  These are two syndromes which have acute onset of symptoms very similar to some of those found in autism.  It is claimed to affect 1 in every 200 children in the US.

The good news is that a very thorough and dedicated doctor called Susan Swedo has worked logically through from starting to identify the syndrome, all the way through to treating it.  Good job Susan.

Though she insists that PANDAS and PANS are distinct from autism, one can only wonder how many other distinct, but yet to be identified, syndromes exist that also present with autism-like symptoms.

Thanks to the efforts of Dr Swedo and the US NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), these two conditions have been remarkably well investigated, in a very short period of time.  It shows what medical science can achieve when the right people are in charge.  It is odd that such effective clinical attention has not been focused on autism itself.

Here is a very recent presentation given by Dr Swedo, which really covers all the important aspects of both PANS and PANDAS.  For those with a serious interest, have a look though this post and then watch the presentation, to get the most from it.

Dr Susan Swedo (click for IPad users)

Penguins and PANDAS

One of the reasons I was so impressed by how PANDAS has been addressed, as opposed to the much more common autism, is the before and after data.  For example, many people talk about regressive autism, but nobody quantifies from what, to what.  Some children went from a spoken vocabulary of 10 words to 2 words, while others went from 500 words to zero; there is a profound (and relevant) difference.

In the case of PANS and PANDAS we have the before and after artwork from the affected kids. As usual, a picture is worth a thousand words.

I have no great panda pictures, but Monty aged 10 with ASD, brought back his artwork from school last week and pride of place goes to his picture of two penguins.  We were all more than a little taken aback to see it.  Did he really draw this? Unassisted?  It looks much more like the work of his big brother.  Even his assistant was surprised and confirmed that this was the result of his work in the art room for a double lesson.  I never expected to be displaying Monty’s artwork to the world.

Later in this post you will see the before and after PANDAS artwork.


When I first came across a condition known as PANDAS or PANS, I did not take that much notice; with such a name I assumed it was nonsense.   Researchers should give a serious syndrome a serious name/acronym.

I imagine that with the ever widening of the diagnosis of autism, some people with PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections) /PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome) have been misdiagnosed as autistic and vice versa.

When you look at the symptoms and apparent cause of PANDAS/PANS you may wonder how many other similar conditions exist within the myriad of conditions leading to autism.

The shocking regression in cognitive function (illustrated by children’s drawings further down the page) produced by this condition and the fact that it can be reversed, should really be carefully evaluated in comparison to regressive autism.

It would be appear that all of this is caused by an immune system gone “haywire”.  I wonder how many other immune dysfunctions leading to regression and odd behaviours will be identified in future decades.

The treatment for all these current, and future, conditions are likely to revolve around immunomodulatory therapy, ranging from very cheap steroids (prednisone) to the very expensive, like IVIG (Intravenous immunoglobulin)

If you have a case of regressive autism and the expert says it does not fit the definition of PANDAS/PANS, he might think the case is closed.  Perhaps it should not be.

I suggest that immune over-activation is involved in both groups of autism:-

Early onset autism
In these cases the immune activation is secondary; when it occurs the existing autism just gets much worse.  In some cases these flare-ups are evidently caused by food allergies/intolerance or pollen allergies.

Regressive Autism
I think that in mild cases, some autism may be solely an over-activation of the immune system, without any of the channelopathies and other dysfunctions common in classic autism.  I would put PANS/PANDAS is this category.  I suggest that many other cases of regressive autism could be traced back to allergies and food intolerance, which triggered an immune over-response.

It does seem that many regressions followed a viral infection, and of course, many people believe their regression was triggered by vaccines.  I expect in most cases the vaccine is just a scapegoat, but I very much doubt it is in every case.   
I do not expect there will be any research in this area, because the results would inevitably be misinterpreted by the public.  What a pity.

If we better understood what events could radically disrupt brain function, we might be able to better understand how to treat the resulting neuropsychiatric phenomena, known as regressive autism, PANDAS, PANS and other, yet to be invented, acronyms.

A serious condition with some serious followers

Many people’s knowledge of autism seems to come from sound bites from scientific luminaries like Oprah, Jenny McCarthy and even Donald Trump.  Somewhat remarkably, the PANS doctors are actually a very serious bunch, under the umbrella of the International OCD Foundation (and the NIMH).  This foundation is a serious organisation with a scientific advisory board loaded with people from top US Medical Schools.

Not only have they concisely explained the symptoms, but they have also found therapies; albeit, they do not really know why they work.

The US National Institute of Mental Health has great information.

There is also a very serious parent run organisation called PANDAS Network.


In the early 1990s, 50 years after Kanner noticed autism, researchers in the US noticed what they thought was an odd acute-onset type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  At first it was thought that only streptococcal infections and Scarlet fever triggered this abrupt regression in the child’s behaviour and cognitive performance.  The first name they came up with was PANDAS, (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections); when reports came in that many other infections caused acute regression the name got changed to PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome). 

Symptoms of PANS

It is pretty clear to me that some people diagnosed with regressive autism actually have PANS.  I have from two sources a list of symptoms:-

International OCD Foundation
  • Acute sudden onset of OCD
  • Challenges with eating, and at the extreme end, anorexia
  • Sensory issues such as sensitivity to clothes, sound, and light
  • Handwriting noticeably deteriorates
  • Urinary frequency or bedwetting
  • Small motor skills deteriorate - a craft project from yesterday is now impossible to complete (see images below)
  • Tics
  • Inattentive, distractible, unable to focus and has difficulties with memory
  • Overnight onset of anxiety or panic attacks over things that were no big deal a few days ago, such as thunderstorms or bugs
  • Suddenly unable to separate from their caregiver, or to sleep alone
  • Screaming for hours on end
  • Fear of germs and other more traditional-looking OCD symptoms

US National Institute of Mental Health
  • Severe separation anxiety (e.g., child can't leave parent's side or needs to sleep on floor next to parent's bed, etc.)
  • Generalized anxiety. which may progress to episodes of panic and a "terror-stricken look"
  • Motoric hyperactivity, abnormal movements, and a sense of restlessness
  • Sensory abnormalities, including hyper-sensitivity to light or sounds, distortions of visual perceptions, and occasionally, visual or auditory hallucinations
  • Concentration difficulties, and loss of academic abilities, particularly in math and visual-spatial areas
  • Increased urinary frequency and a new onset of bed-wetting
  • Irritability (sometimes with aggression) and emotional liability. Abrupt onset of depression can also occur, with thoughts about suicide.
  • Developmental regression, including temper tantrums, "baby talk" and handwriting deterioration (also related to motor symptoms)

In case you want to see what they mean by regression, look at these pictures drawn by a child with PANDAS before and after treatment.  Panel A is before and Panel B is after.   Source International OCD Foundation


Compared to Autism, a very refreshing approach is taken to treating PANS.

The treatments include:-
·        Treatment with antibiotics to eradicate the infection, if it is still present.
·        Immune-based therapies such as

o   corticosteroids (such as prednisone).

The good news about the immune therapies is that the treatment gains were maintained long-term, which is exactly what you would want to see. 
Therapeutic plasma exchange and intravenous immunoglobulin for obsessive-compulsive disorder and tic disorders in childhood

Implications for Autism

In spite of what your doctor might tell you, if your child has regressive autism, you would be well advised to check and re-check that he/she does not have PANS or a (yet to be identified) variant thereof. 

The immune-based therapies that ultimately are proved to be successful in PANS are highly likely to be helpful in treating the kind of autism in which the immune system remains in a state of over-activation.  Also the immune-therapies being trialled for autism, if successful, might very likely be helpful alternative therapies for PANS; the therapy I have in mind is TSO.

Classic early-onset autism, as researched in post-mortem studies at the Courchesne lab and elsewhere, is associated with physical brain abnormalities, that should be irreversible.  It would seem that PANS is something entirely different and should be treatable and potentially fully recoverable.

For those of you unaware of Courchesne, here is a short video; he is quoted by many of the leading autism researchers, so I hope he has got things right.

Where does regressive autism fit in?  I really doubt that all those people with regressive autism have the physical brain abnormalities of classic autism.  Research has shown that regressive autism has even higher bio-markers of neuroinflammation than classic autism.  Perhaps regressive autism is neuroinflammation, without physical brain abnormalities?

Just as PANS is a mini-spectrum of conditions, pathologically distinct from early onset autism, I suspect that regressive autism is equally pathologically distinct from early onset autism.

Why does it matter?  Well if you want to treat something, it helps to know what you are dealing with.

PANS looks like it has some clever people working on it.  Regressive autism, which may indeed be the most prevalent type, is in need of some similarly clever people.


If regressive autism is your area of interest, I would suggest you look very carefully at PANS/PANDAS and the therapies that have been shown to be effective.

If you have PANS/PANDAS, taking a look at the experimental immunomodulatory therapy used in autism might be very worthwhile, for example the TSO therapy from Coronado Bioscience.

We know that PANS/PANDAS is caused by an ongoing inappropriate immune response, but we do not know how this is mediated into the odd behaviours.  One possible mechanism would be via a weakening of the blood brain barrier (BBB).  

It has been shown that the similar mechanism controls the BBB and the gut immune barrier.   Clever research into Celiac Disease has resulted in the discovery of Zonulin, which is now known to be the only physiological modulator of both these barriers.  Using a type of laboratory test called ELISA, it is now possible to measure Zonulin levels.  If people diagnosed with PANS/PANDAS were shown to have low Zonulin levels, we could assume that the BBB was compromised; this would certainly advance understanding of the condition. It would of course point the way to new therapies.