Cytokine dysregulation in autism spectrum disorders (ASD): Possible role of the environment

Paula E. Goines, Paul Ashwood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

169 Scopus citations


Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental diseases that affect an alarming number of individuals. The etiological basis of ASD is unclear, and evidence suggests it involves both genetic and environmental factors. There are many reports of cytokine imbalances in ASD. These imbalances could have a pathogenic role, or they may be markers of underlying genetic and environmental influences. Cytokines act primarily as mediators of immunological activity but they also have significant interactions with the nervous system. They participate in normal neural development and function, and inappropriate activity can have a variety of neurological implications. It is therefore possible that cytokine dysregulation contributes directly to neural dysfunction in ASD. Further, cytokine profiles change dramatically in the face of infection, disease, and toxic exposures. Imbalances in cytokines may represent an immune response to environmental contributors to ASD. The following review is presented in two main parts. First, we discuss select cytokines implicated in ASD, including IL-1C{hooktop}, IL-6, IL-4, IFN-γ, and TGF-C{hooktop}, and focus on their role in the nervous system. Second, we explore several neurotoxic environmental factors that may be involved in the disorders, and focus on their immunological impacts. This review represents an emerging model that recognizes the importance of both genetic and environmental factors in ASD etiology. We propose that the immune system provides critical clues regarding the nature of the gene by environment interactions that underlie ASD pathophysiology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)67-81
Number of pages15
JournalNeurotoxicology and Teratology
StatePublished - Mar 2013


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Cytokine
  • Environment
  • Immunology
  • Neurodevelopment
  • Toxicant

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Toxicology


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