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Obesity in mothers linked to autism

10th April 2012

Researchers in California say they have found a link between obesity in pregnant mothers and the incidence of autism and other developmental disorders, although they say the effect may not be a very strong one.


In a preliminary study, researchers at the University of California's MIND Institute, found that maternal obesity was associated with a higher probability that a child would receive a diagnosis of autism or developmental delay by the age of five.

A research team led by Paula Krakowiak found that a combination of metabolic conditions in expectant mothers was linked to a range of developmental impairments in their children.

Some experts have called findings provocative, because they suggest that maternal metabolic disorders contribute to autism.

According to US government estimates, one in 88 children in the US has an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, while one in 83 has some kind of developmental delay.

According to Susan Hyman of the University of Rochester in New York, who chairs the autism subcommittee at the American Academy of Paediatrics, the contribution of maternal metabolic conditions to autism was likely to be a small one.

She said there were other factors linked to obesity not captured by the data used in the study that could also be involved in the link, which currently does not prove that maternal metabolic conditions cause autism or developmental delays.

She cautioned mothers of children with autism or developmental delays against obsessive analysis of what they did during pregnancy, and advised them to focus on effective interventions to held their child.

Krakowiak also said that cause and effect had not been proven by her study, and that other factors may be involved.

Both genetic and environmental factors are thought to be involved in causing autism.

Researchers have already found a link between gestational diabetes and general developmental problems in children, but the link is far less clear when applied only to diagnoses of autism.

Krakowiak and her team analysed data from the CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment) study of children born in California.

The data they looked at was gathered from more than 1,000 children between the ages of two and five, and included records of obesity, high blood pressure and gestational or type 2 diabetes in their mothers.

They found that 28.6% of mothers of children on the autism spectrum had one of the conditions, as did 34.9% of mothers of children with a developmental delay. Only 19.4% of children of mothers who developed normally had one of the three metabolic conditions.

Hyman speculated that foetal brain development could be affected by high glucose levels in the mother's bloodstream, because glucose can cross the placenta, but not insulin. The increased oxygen demands on a foetus that has to produce extra insulin could have an impact on brain development, she said.


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