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Autism Risk Tied to Mother’s Antibodies

Update Date: Jul 10, 2013 11:11 AM EDT

Autism, a developmental disorder associated with social learning complications, is usually diagnosed in toddlers at the age of three and older. Since current treatments for autism involve behavioral therapy, screening out toddlers with autism at an even earlier point and starting immediate treatment could be key in teaching autistic children. In a new study, researchers found that nearly one-quarter of all cases of autism could be traced back to certain maternal antibodies.

The study recruited 246 autistic children, 149 non-autistic children that developed typically and their mothers. The researchers found that after they tested the mothers of the autistic children, all mothers with the exception of one had specific antibodies that seem to affect with fetal cognitive development in the womb. The one mother that did not have these antibodies had a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These six antibodies that the researchers isolated and tied to autism risk could potentially predict autism in unborn children by studying the blood of women even before they are pregnant. The researchers found that 23 percent of mothers of autistic children had these antibodies in comparison to only one percent of mothers who had these antibodies but did not have autistic children.

The lead author, Judith Van de Water an immunologist and professor of internal medicine with the University of California Davis MIND Institute, and her team found that these antibodies are from a class of compounds known as autoantibodies. This group of compounds is a set of immune cells that are produced by the body and often attack their own cells by mistake. Although researchers do not understand why these cells are produced, they reasoned that the body could be making these cells during an infection. These cells then affect fetal growth in pregnant mothers.

The researchers hope that their findings could lead to the first ever blood test to screen for autism risk. The researchers acknowledged that there is a 77 percent chance that a negative test will not rule out autism risk since this percentage of mothers with autistic children did not have these antibodies.

This study is linked to a 2008 study conducted by this same group of researchers that first looked into these antibodies. The findings were published in Translational Psychiatry.  

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