Autistic disorder (autism) is a behaviorally defined developmental disorder with a wide range of behaviors. Although the etiology of autism is unknown, data suggest that autism results from multiple etiologies with both genetic and environmental contributions, which may explain the spectrum of behaviors seen in this disorder.
One proposed etiology for autism is viral infection very early in development. The mechanism, by which viral infection may lead to autism, be it through direct infection of the central nervous system (CNS), through infection elsewhere in the body acting as a trigger for disease in the CNS, through alteration of the immune response of the mother or offspring, or through a combination of these, is not yet known. Animal models in which early viral infection results in behavioral changes later in life include the influenza virus model in pregnant mice and the Borna disease virus model in newborn Lewis rats.
Many studies over the years have presented evidence both for and against the association of autism with various viral infections. The best association to date has been made between congenital rubella and autism; however, members of the herpes virus family may also have a role in autism.
Recently, controversy has arisen as to the involvement of measles virus and/or the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine in the development of autism.
Biological assays lend support to the association between measles virus or MMR and autism whereas epidemiologic studies show no association between MMR and autism.
Further research is needed to clarify both the mechanisms whereby viral infection early in development may lead to autism and the possible involvement of the MMR vaccine in the development of autism.
J Neurovirol. 2005 Feb;11(1):1-10.
Libbey JE, Sweeten TL, McMahon WM, Fujinami RS.
Department of Neurology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84132-2305, USA.