We know that when pregnant women get sick, it’s not only their bodies that get affected but the developing baby in their belly as well. Illnesses like the German measles, chicken pox, hepatitis B, and Zika can cause grave consequences like birth defects, developmental problems, and low birth weight to the unborn child. Now, recent research may have found a link between severe infection caused by gut bacteria during pregnancy and autism in children.
The reaction that happens when a pregnant body battles an infection is called the "maternal immune activation" or MIA. Research has shown MIA "influences the baby’s developing brain, which could lead to cognitive and neurodevelopmental problems in the child." Two new studies published in the journal Nature seem to support it. It found that one more consequence of MIA may increase the risk of autism especially when the mom-to-be's infection is severe enough to require hospitalization. Researching mice, data had shown a certain strain of bacteria found in the mothers’ gut when coupled with a viral infection produced pups that exhibited atypical, autism-like behavior.
Lead authors of the papers, Gloria Choi, who is from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the university's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and Jun Huh, who is from Harvard Medical School, say mothers who carry the specific strain of bacteria may be more susceptible to birthing offsprings with behavioral problems. This may explain why not all moms who acquire an infection during pregnancy have children with autism.
If proven true, it implies these mothers will need to “use diet or drugs to manipulate their gut microbiome to reduce the risk of harm to their baby if an infection triggers their immune response,” says an article on Nature on the studies.
More research is needed to establish a stronger link between gut bacteria, infection, and autism. Nonetheless, the studies’ results provide experts with new leads to find the possible cause of autism and perhaps ways to prevent the condition.
Doctors and scientists have long been searching for answers to explain the cause of autism. Past s pregnancy tudies have provided interesting insight. A study from Columbia University published in February this year found that “women actively infected with genital herpes during early pregnancy had twice the odds of giving birth to a child later diagnosed with autism,” reports ScienceDaily.
Recent research from the University of Queensland published in March of this year found giving vitamin D, which doctors already know plays a crucial role in baby’s development, to pregnant mice reduces the risk of autism in their offspring.
Looking at it from another perspective, a study from the Oregon Health & Science University published last month found that genetic mutations may have a hand in causing autism. If this is the case, there may be little moms can do to prevent autism in their children for now, and the key lies in finding where and when during the baby’s development do these mutations occur.
Complicating things even more is past studies also point to pregnancy spacing, anti-depressants, obesity, diabetes, and pre-eclampsia with links to autism (we’ve compiled them in a list here).
Whether we’re close to uncovering the mysteries of autism or not, staying healthy during pregnancy remains to be the best advice to giving a baby the best start in life.