“Our research highlights that the risk for autism begins in the utero.”
Autism has its roots in early brain development, but according to Autism Speaks, it cannot be definitively diagnosed until around 18 to 24 months. Researchers have identified several genes that can cause autism, but in most cases, no single cause can be identified, the organization says.
Now, scientists at the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health have unearthed what may be another contributing factor to the development of the disease — the mother’s health.
In particular, babies born to obese women with diabetes are over four times as likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder than those born to mothers of healthy weight without diabetes, the researchers found.
“We have long known that obesity and diabetes aren’t good for mothers’ own health,” study leader Xiaobin Wang, professor of child health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a press release. “Now we have further evidence that these conditions also impact the long-term neural development of their children.”
The researchers analyzed 2,734 mother-child pairs, and focused on data of maternal pre-pregnancy weight and whether the mothers had diabetes before pregnancy or developed gestational diabetes during pregnancy. Over the course of the study, they followed the children from birth through childhood and identified 102 children that went on to be diagnosed with autism.
These findings led the scientists to the conclusion that children with mothers who were diabetic and obese had over four times more of a likelihood to develop autism.
“Our research highlights that the risk for autism begins in utero,” says co-author M. Daniele Fallin, director of Johns Hopkins’ Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. “It’s important for us to now try to figure out what is it about the combination of obesity and diabetes that is potentially contributing to sub-optimal fetal health.”
Unfortunately, autism spectrum disorder is a condition on the rise — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the rates have skyrocketed since the 1960s, and now one in every 68 US children are affected. The disorder is characterized by issues with verbal and nonverbal communication, and severe deficits in socialization.
It’s not completely understood why obesity and diabetes might contribute to the risk of developing autism, but the researchers say that both obesity and diabetes cause general stress on the human body. Previous research has also suggested that maternal obesity could be linked with inflammation in the developing fetal brain.
“In order to prevent autism, we may need to consider not only pregnancy, but also pre-pregnancy health,” Fallin says.
Of course, women with obesity and diabetes should be concerned about their conditions for their own health’s sake, but they now must also take into consideration how these factors could have lifelong impacts on their children.