Autism linked to gestational diabetes

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Children whose mothers developed gestational diabetes by the 26th week of pregnancy were at increased risk of developing autism later in life, according to a new Kaiser Permanente study.

Researchers examined the electronic health records of more than 322,000 ethnically diverse children born between 28 and 44 weeks at Kaiser Permanente Southern California medical centres between January 1995 and December 2009. They followed the children for an average of 5.5 years and found that those exposed to gestational diabetes by the 26th week of pregnancy had a 63% increased risk of being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder than children who were not exposed. After taking into account maternal age, education, race and ethnicity, household income and other factors, the increased risk of autism associated with gestational diabetes was 42%.

“The exposure of foetuses to maternal hyperglycemia may have long-lasting effects on organ development and function, but whether this can disrupt fetal brain development and heighten risk for neurobehavioral developmental disorders in offspring is less clear,” said study lead author Dr Anny H Xiang, of the Kaiser Permanente Southern California department of research & evaluation. “Future studies should address whether early diagnosis and treatment of gestational diabetes can reduce the risk of autism.” She noted that this was an observational study, therefore the findings reveal associations between gestational diabetes and risk of a child developing autism rather than proving a cause and effect relationship.

The study also found that children whose mothers developed gestational diabetes after 26 weeks of pregnancy had no more risk of autism spectrum disorder than children whose mothers did not have pre-existing diabetes or gestational diabetes.

“If the findings of this study reflect a cause and effect relationship, then they add another factor to a growing list of risks associated with gestational diabetes,” said study co-author Dr Edward S Curry, paediatric learning and behavior specialist, Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Centre. “Our study findings also suggest that early screening for autism in children of women with gestational diabetes diagnosed by 26 weeks gestation may be warranted.”

Kaiser Permanente material
Journal of the American Medical Association abstract


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