Study finds pregnancy diabetes and autism link

May 1, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. ET
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A new study found a potential association between autism and diabetes during pregnancy.

Autism may be the most puzzling epidemic of the modern age. Despite studies that have found that boys have higher rates of autism or that the disorder may be linked to the father's DNA, researchers haven't pinpointed an exact answer for how, when and why autism occurs.

But a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found a link between diabetes during early pregnancy and autism.

Although most women don't get screened for gestational diabetes (diabetes that develops only during pregnancy) until between 24 and 28 weeks of their pregnancy, this study actually found that the autism-diabetes link occurred the most when the mother developed the diabetes early during the pregnancy. Researchers speculate that the higher blood sugar levels, especially in the first trimester, could interfere with crucial brain development.

The highest risk was found in women diagnosed with gestational diabetes by 26-weeks into pregnancy. The children of women diagnosed with gestational diabetes by that week actually had a 40 percent higher chance of having autism than mothers who didn't have diabetes.

Interestingly enough, women who had diabetes before they were pregnant, such as Type 2 diabetes, did not have a higher risk of having children with autism, so the changes in the brain that could lead to autism seem to be triggered by the changing levels of sugar and not just the presence of higher blood sugar levels. Also, children of the women who developed the diabetes later in their pregnancies did not have higher rates of autism, which does point to a developmental link during the first trimester.

As with most studies, the researchers can't necessarily say that gestational diabetes causes autism, but only that there is a link. And of course, they will now need more research to determine if detecting and treating gestational diabetes even earlier during pregnancy could make a difference in decreasing autism rates in the future.

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