Recent studies of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) highlight hyperactivity of the immune system, irregular neuronal growth and increased size and number of microglia. Though the small sample size in many of these studies limits extrapolation to all individuals with ASD, there is mounting evidence of both immune and nervous system related pathogenesis in at least a subset of patients with ASD. Given the disturbing rise in incidence rates for ASD, and the fact that no pharmacological therapy for ASD has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is an urgent need for new therapeutic options. Research in the therapeutic effects of mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) for other immunological and neurological conditions has shown promising results in preclinical and even clinical studies. MSC have demonstrated the ability to suppress the immune system and to promote neurogenesis with a promising safety profile. The working hypothesis of this paper is that the potentially synergistic ability of MSC to modulate a hyperactive immune system and its ability to promote neurogenesis make it an attractive potential therapeutic option specifically for ASD. Theoretical mechanisms of action will be suggested, but further research is necessary to support these hypothetical pathways. The choice of tissue source, type of cell, and most appropriate ages for therapeutic intervention remain open questions for further consideration. Concern over poor regulatory control of stem cell studies or treatment, and the unique ethical challenges that each child with ASD presents, demands that future research be conducted with particular caution before widespread use of the proposed therapeutic intervention is implemented.
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