Can autism be prevented? Until now, medical experts have no concrete theory as to what causes autism. While they agree that the condition occurs when typical brain development is disrupted, it is not clear why or how this happens.
Some theories point to genetics as the culprit. Others argue that that autism is caused by environmental factors that a developing baby was exposed to while still in his mother's womb. Prenatal development in the womb in itself is still largely unexplored. Without coming to a conclusion, we've rounded up these pregnancy-related conditions that have been linked to autism, and the studies that back them up:
1. Pregnancy spacing The autism research program at the Kaiser Permanente research division in Oakland, California found that the gap between pregnancies could be a factor in the younger child developing autism. The study published in Pediatricsfound that children conceived in less than two years and in more than six years after the birth of an older sibling have a two- to three-times increased risk for developing the condition.
A shorter gap could be traced to low levels of folic acid, an essential nutrient for baby's healthy brain development inside the womb. Longer gaps could be attributed to infertility issues that could play a role in the child developing autism.
2. Taking anti-depressants during pregnancy A University of Montreal study that followed 145,456 women found that taking the antidepressants Prozac and Seroxat during their second and third trimester increased the chances of their child having autism by 87 percent. While the risk seems high, the National Autistic Society stresses that the risk is still small.
Anti-depressants are generally not recommended for most pregnant women except for extreme cases, such as those at risk for depression and other mental health issues. In those cases, the benefits of taking the medicines far outweigh the risks. While this is a large study, it was not controlled or randomized.
3. Obesity and diabetes Children born to obese women with diabetes are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism, according to a new John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study, which included mothers who already have diabetes before getting pregnant and those who develop gestational diabetes.
A previous study also said that children of mothers who had gestational diabetes had a higher risk for developing the condition compared to moms who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes before pregnancy. Obesity and diabetes are already red flag conditions for pregnant women, and these studies prove they also affect the baby in the womb.
4. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome According to a new study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, children born to mothers with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) have a 59-percent increased risk for autism. Autism is four times more common in boys than girls, and women who have PCOS have higher levels of androgen, the sex hormone responsible for developing male-typical characteristics. Exposure to androgens early in life could be the culprit.
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However, more studies need to be done to know more about the shared genetic influences between PCOS and autism. Researchers are also suspecting that metabolic problems caused by PCOS could also play a role as to why the kids born to mothers with PCOS developed the condition.
5. In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) Researchers at Columbia University claimed that children conceived via assisted reproductive technology such as IVF are twice likely to be diagnosed with autism. However, researchers suspect that it is not the procedure that causes autism, but the risk for multiple pregnancies and other risks associated with the infertility treatment. IVF is not a cause for autism.
In IVF, the fertilization occurs in a laboratory and the embryos are implanted inside the mother’s womb. Fertility doctors now only recommend single-egg transfers to lessen the chances of multiple pregnancies that could lead to complications.
6. Pre-eclampsia It is a pregnancy condition that is characterized by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine. In a study from the University of California-Davis MIND Institute, among the 500 children diagnosed with autism, 200 of them also had developmental delays. The researchers consider placental problems are the cause. Pre-eclampsia restricts the fetus’s oxygen and nutrient supply by restricting the mother’s blood supply in the placenta, and thus affects the baby’s developing brain.
The study also found that the more severe pre-eclampsia a pregnant woman has, the higher the risk for autism of her child. Pre-eclampsia in itself is life-threatening for a pregnant women, and blood pressure checks during prenatal checkups should be routine.
7. Lupus Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease wherein the body’s immune systems attacks healthy cells. According to a study of the Offspring of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Mothers Registry database, maternal lupus more than doubles a child’s risk for developing autism. The link between the two was not traced to the medications a patient takes, but there weren't enough data to be conclusive.
The researchers, however, suggest that exposure to autoantibodies present in mothers who have lupus may increase the risk of autism. More research on the levels of autoimmune antibodies present in pregnant women are needed to fully understand the correlation between the two.