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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

The immunology of autism

Photo of UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute researcher Judy Van de Water

Immunology researcher Judy Van de Water, left, is finding distinctions in the immune systems of children with autism.

Judy Van de Water’s list of research contributions reads like an encyclopedia of autoimmune dysfunction. The well-known researcher has made significant contributions to the knowledge of perplexing immunological disorders such as primary biliary cirrhosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis and progressive systemic sclerosis. These chronic conditions affect millions of people, yet relatively little is known about what creates a healthy or faulty immune system. But this is now changing thanks to technological advances that make it possible to identify specific factors of the immune system.

“We’ve known for a while that the immune system is our first line of defense — our ‘first responders’ to disease,” said Van de Water, a professor of rheumatology, allergy and clinical immunology. “It's now possible to distinguish the smallest features of the immune system and track what they do or do not do when exposed to outside agents such as viruses, bacteria or toxins. Immune system malfunctions are now becoming less mysterious.”

Her studies have also analyzed the role of nutrition in health or, as she calls it, “myth checking.” With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, she questioned the promoted qualities of a variety of popular supplements. For instance, does ginseng increase immune response? Does chocolate provide antioxidant benefits? Or does spirulina reduce allergic reactions? According to Van de Water’s research, no, yes and yes.

After years of studying the autoimmune issues of middle-aged adults, she is now applying her expertise to a neurodevelopmental disorder usually identified in childhood. With colleague Suzanne Teuber, an associate professor of rheumatology, allergy and clinical immunology, she is looking into the roles of food allergies in autism. Through studies funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the M.I.N.D. Institute, she has identified several immune system differences in children with autism. The early results show great potential.

“We are confident that there are multi-factorial immune anomalies in children with autism. Those anomalies are different for children who have what is called ‘classic’ autism and those who have later onset or ‘regressive’ autism,” she says. “Now we have to ask, ‘What is or are the mechanisms that led to those anomalies?’” To answer that question, Van de Water is working with scientists at the Center for Children's Environmental Health to investigate potential environmental risk factors that could contribute to the onset and severity of autism.

Van de Water is inspired by the opportunity to apply her expertise to a childhood disorder. “It is so fulfilling to work on something that can have such a huge impact. What we discover can lead to better treatments and better lives for these children. The ramifications of my work today are clearly different than my past research.”

When not at work, Van de Water, whose own son just celebrated his sixth birthday, spends a lot of time building Legos®, swimming, riding horses, working on her small ranch, taking care of chickens and gardening. In addition, she and her son recently began a jewelry design business. They sell their creations to a store on the Mendocino coast.