Mothers of autistic children who had metabolic problems during pregnancy, particularly gestational and type II diabetes, are more likely to have anti-fetal brain autoantibodies in their blood compared to healthy women with autistic children, according to a new study at the University of California (UC) Davis MIND Institute.
The findings show that diabetic women are three times more likely to have anti-fetal brain autoantibodies, particularly those whose children have severe autism. Women with other metabolic conditions, such as high blood pressure and elevated body mass index (BMI) also had a higher prevalence of anti-fetal brain autoantibodies, the researchers found.
However, among mothers of children without autism, these anti-fetal brain autoantibodies are quite rare (detected in only one percent), the researchers found.
“We found a three-fold increase in the prevalence of anti-fetal brain antibodies among the mothers of children with autism who were diagnosed with gestational diabetes or type II diabetes,” said Paula Krakowiak, a post-doctoral fellow in the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences and a researcher affiliated with the MIND Institute.
Previous research at the MIND Institute showed that approximately 23 percent of mothers with an autistic child exhibited specific patterns of autoantibodies that target proteins highly expressed in the fetal brain. This finding was the first to identify a specific risk factor for a significant subset of autism cases, as well as a potential biomarker for drug development and early diagnosis.
Approximately five to nine percent of women in the United States are diagnosed with gestational diabetes each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Furthermore, between 4.5 and nine percent of women in the prime childbearing years of 18 to 44 have gestational diabetes.
For the current study, researchers looked at 227 mother/child pairs who are participants in the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study, which examines the environmental and genetic causes of autism.
The findings reveal that autism-specific maternal autoantibodies were more prevalent among mothers diagnosed with diabetes, hypertensive disorders, or who were moderately overweight compared to healthy mothers.
Among the study participants, 145 mothers had children with severe symptoms of autism. Of these mothers, those diagnosed with type II or gestational diabetes were nearly three times more likely to have the autism-specific anti-fetal brain antibodies, when compared with healthy mothers.
“There are several take-away messages from this study,” Krakowiak said. “One is that metabolic conditions are characterized by increased inflammation and a number of studies have established links between metabolic conditions during pregnancy and neurodevelopmental conditions in children. Therefore, it is also reasonable to presume that these conditions may alter the maternal immune tolerance to the fetus during pregnancy, Krakowiak said.
“Another is to encourage women who are planning a pregnancy to achieve a healthier pre-pregnancy weight through changes in diet and physical activity, and if a mother was diagnosed with a metabolic condition to keep a closer watch of the baby’s development,” she said.
“We need to look into how their health is being managed, and how we can help them to be healthier,” Krakowiak said.
The findings are published online in the journal Autism Research.
Source: UC Davis Health System