It’s a simple question, and a profoundly important one to people like me who have a child with seizures. The recent death of Jett Travolta from a seizure leaves parents like us feeling that may some day be our story, despite all our best efforts. Dan Olmsted’s recent article, “The Unnatural History of Seizures” appropriately places at least some of the blame on environmental factors, but leaves unanswered the question of exactly how such seizures are caused. However, recent research from New York University (NYU), and the Scripps Institute may answer some questions which have long eluded researchers. (“Peering Inside Skull of a Mouse to Solve Meningitis Mystery: Immune Cells Implicated in Fatal Seizures”, Science Daily, January 7, 2009)
In their series of experiments mice were infected with the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), a virus which is relatively harmless in humans, but which causes fatal seizures in mice. It has been known that the virus itself did not cause the seizures, but something in the immune system’s response to the virus did.
It was known that something set off a chain of events in which the leakage of fluid from the meninges (the protective covering of the brain and spinal cord), caused a swelling which led to seizures.
Using high-tech, intravital two-photon microscopy the scientists were able to observe that T-cells, the body’s virus fighters, were doing something very unusual. At first, the T-cells acted normally, making copies of themselves, migrating to the place where the virally-infected cells were located, but then things went awry. Instead of attacking the virally-infected cells and sticking tightly to them, it was as if they suddenly went blind. They didn’t attack the virally-infected cells, even though they were in close proximity.
But like a policeman called to a murder scene who can’t find a body, the T-cells called in reinforcements, specifically monocytes and neutrophils, two types of white blood cells which usually fight bacteria, not viruses. According to the Science Daily article, “Intravital microscopy showed massive numbers of these white blood cells breaking through the walls of blood vessels into the meninges, opening the floodgates for fluid to pour out and cause swelling.” And the swelling leads to seizures.
Problems with the immune system have long been associated with autism, but the exact mechanisms by which they cause their damage have been unclear. The authors of the report note that if they can inhibit the monocytes and neutrophils they will be going after the root of the seizures.
I would add a few extra questions to be addressed. What is blinding the T-cells to the invaders in their midst? Could viruses and heavy metals have similar ways of blinding T-cells? Why have the body’s own guardians become the destroyers of the body? Rather than simply muting the misguided message of the T-cells to the monocytes and neutrophils it seems we should be figuring out how to restore the proper functioning of the T-cells. We need to discover how to return the guardians to their proper role.
The lives of many children, maybe even my own, hinge on the answers to these questions.
Kent Heckenlively is Legal Editor for Age of Autism.