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Risks for Autism Linked to a Newborn’s Placenta

Update Date: Apr 25, 2013 11:00 AM EDT

Autism, which is a neurological disorder that results in difficulty with social interactions, is often diagnosed during three to four years old. When it is diagnosed early, there are several ways of training the autistic child to learn certain behaviors that could help the child develop as he or she ages. Due to the importance of early intervention, doctors have looked for other early indicators of autism, which is believed to have some genetic basis. According to a new study, doctors believe that autism could be detected as early as infancy through the analysis of the infant's placenta.

A team of scientists headed by Harvey Kilman from Yale University looked into the role of the placenta in predicting autism. Kilman and his colleagues received 217 placenta samples from researchers at the University of California Davis's MIND Institute. The researchers at UC Davis are a part of a study called the Markers of Autism Risk in Babies - Learning Early Signs (MARBLES) that follows the younger siblings of autistic children in their hopes to discover a new link or insights into autism. Using the placenta samples, Kilman and his team were able to correctly predict, 90 percent of the time, which placentas belonged to infants that had an autistic sibling. 117 of the placentas were from families with a child diagnosed with the condition and 100 of the placentas acted as the controlled group.

"At birth we have a tool now that can tell us who's at risk and who isn't at risk for autism. This gives us the opportunity to intervene at a time when the brain is mot plastic and able to transform," Kilman stated.

The researchers were able to predict the infant's link to having an autistic sibling based on abnormal foldings in the placenta. The researchers stated that the abnormal folding of the tissues, which presented as extra placental folds, could be caused by autism. The researchers noted that the high-risk placentas had up to 15 trophoblast inclusions, whereas the controlled group placentas had no more than two. Although the researchers could not determine the biological link between the folds and autism, they are optimistic about their findings due to the accuracy of their predictions.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 50 children end up being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Babies that are born into a family with an autistic child have an increased rate for autism than other newborns. Researchers believe that an even earlier detection could mean better therapy options.

"I hope that diagnosing the risk of developing autism by examining the placenta at birth will become routine, and that the children who are shown to have increased numbers of trophoblast inclusions will have early interventions and an improved quality of life as a result of this test," Kilman stated.

The study was published in the journal, Biological Psychiatry.

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