Microbiota and the host immune system in autism

  • Autism Research
Speaker Dan Littman, M.D., Ph.D.
New York University School of Medicine
Date & Time


Gerald D. Fischbach Auditorium
160 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10010 United States

Autism Research

Autism Research lectures bring together scientists and scholars to discuss diverse and important topics related to autism.

On 29 October 2014, Dan Littman described how intestinal bacteria affect immune system cell functioning, potentially contributing to systemic inflammation and autism.

His talk was part of the Simons Foundation Autism Research lecture series.

About the Lecture

Our immune system is heavily influenced by microbiota — the microbes that reside within us. In the intestine, specific microbes induce pro- or anti-inflammatory white blood cells called lymphocytes that maintain a healthy homeostasis. An imbalance of microbiota can result in dysregulated immune cells that contribute to autoimmunity and autism.

In this lecture, Dan Littman described how intestinal bacteria shape the part of the immune system that prevents invasion by harmful microbes, but they can also contribute to systemic inflammation. The bacteria regulate Th17 cells, which participate in multiple autoimmune diseases. These cells play a key role in the maternal immune activation model of autism. Activation of the pregnant mother’s innate immune response may result in lifelong behavioral defects in the child. Through this lens, Littman discussed implications for preventing or treating autism.

About the Speaker

Dan Littman earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, completing a postdoctoral fellowship with Richard Axel at Columbia University. From Columbia, he moved to the University of California, San Francisco, where he  was professor of microbiology and immunology. Littman is now the Helen L. and Martin S. Kimmel Professor of Molecular Immunology at the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine at New York University and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Past Lectures

How emotions shape our memories

Kelsey C. Martin, M.D., Ph.D.Executive Vice President, Autism and Neuroscience
Leonard Mlodinow, Ph.D.Physicist and Author

Have you ever contemplated the difference between a feeling, a thought and a memory? And how do all these things fit together in making us who we are?

Leonard Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist and best-selling author. In his latest book, “Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking,” he unpacks the role emotions play in our thinking and mental well-being.

Kelsey Martin, director of the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) and the foundation’s neuroscience collaborations, has spent much of her career as a neuroscientist seeking to understand better how experiences change brain connectivity to store long-term memories.

What do we mean by ‘autism risk genes’?

David Ledbetter, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer, Dascena

Joseph Buxbaum, Ph.D.
Director, Seaver Autism Center
Professor, Psychiatry, Neuroscience, Genetics and Genomic Sciences
Vice Chair for Research and Vice Chair for Mentoring, Psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Heather Mefford, M.D., Ph.D.
Full Member, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

David Ledbetter and Joseph Buxbaum discussed whether there are genes for which mutations confer risk specific to autism or whether these genes are really conferring general risk of disrupted brain development. The discussion was moderated by Heather Mefford.

Small molecules, genes and antisense oligonucleotides: Industry perspectives on treatment development for ASD

Federico Bolognani, M.D., Ph.D.
Vice President, Head of Clinical Science, Axial Therapeutics

Stuart Cobb, Ph.D.
Chief Scientific Officer, Neurogene; Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Yael Weiss, M.D., Ph.D.
Vice President, Business Development, Ultragenyx

Randy Carpenter, M.D.
Chief Medical Officer, Rett Syndrome Research Trust; Co-Founder, Allos Pharma

Federico Bolognani, Stuart Cobb, and Yael Weiss joined a panel to discuss new industry developments on the use of small molecules, gene therapy and antisense oligonucleotides as treatment approaches for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The panel discussion was moderated by Randall Carpenter.

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