Maternal TH17 cells take a toll on baby's brain

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Science  26 Feb 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6276, pp. 919-920
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2850

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The possibility that microcephaly is caused by Zika virus has made recent alarming headlines. Although few people had previously heard of an association between infection during pregnancy and changes in brain development, epidemiologists have known about this connection for many years. Moreover, mounting evidence suggests that maternal immune activation (MIA) alone is sufficient to alter brain development and may be causally linked to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (13). How could the maternal immune system, which normally serves to protect mother and child from environmental insults, cause changes in brain development? On page 933 of this issue, Choi et al. (4) uncover an important component of this immune pathway: a critical signal from a special class of cells in the mother's immune system, called T helper 17 (TH17) cells, that alters brain development in her fetal offspring (see the figure). These findings have exciting implications for the development of new treatments to prevent ASD caused by maternal infection.