Several epidemiological studies have shown associations between developmental exposure to traffic-related air pollution and increased risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASD), a spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders with increasing prevalence rate in the United States. Though animal studies have provided support for these associations, little is known regarding possible underlying mechanisms. In a previous study we found that exposure of C57BL/6J mice of both sexes to environmentally relevant levels (250–300 µg/m 3 ) of diesel exhaust (DE) from embryonic day 0 to postnatal day 21 (E0 to PND21) caused significant changes in all three characteristic behavioral domains of ASD in the offspring. In the present study we investigated a potential mechanistic pathway that may be of relevance for ASD-like changes associated with developmental DE exposure. Using the same DE exposure protocol (250–300 µg/m 3 DE from E0 to PND21) several molecular markers were examined in the brains of male and female mice at PND3, 21, and 60. Exposure to DE as above increased levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6) in placenta and in neonatal brain. The JAK2/STAT3 pathway, a target for IL-6, was activated by STAT3 phosphorylation, and the expression of DNA methyltransferase 1 (DNMT1), a STAT3 target gene, was increased in DE-exposed neonatal brain. DNMT1 has been reported to down-regulate expression of reelin (RELN), an extracellular matrix glycoprotein important in regulating the processes of neuronal migration. RELN is considered an important modulator for ASD, since there are several polymorphisms in this gene linked to the disease, and since lower levels of RELN have been reported in brains of ASD patients. We observed decreased RELN expression in brains of the DE-exposed mice at PND3. Since disorganized patches in the prefrontal cortex have been reported in ASD patients and disrupted cortical organization has been found in RELN-deficient mice, we also assessed cortical organization, by labeling cells expressing the lamina-specific-markers RELN and calretinin. In DE-exposed mice we found increased cell density in deeper cortex (lamina layers VI–IV) for cells expressing either RELN or calretinin. These findings demonstrate that developmental DE exposure is associated with subtle disorganization of the cerebral cortex at PND60, and suggest a pathway involving IL-6, STAT3, and DNMT1 leading to downregulation of RELN expression that could be contributing to this long-lasting disruption in cortical laminar organization.
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