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Obesity And Diabetes in Pregnant Mothers Increases Chances of Autism in Children

A study by researchers from the University of California has shown that health of expectant mothers might influence their children chances of having autism or delays in development, such as language and learning problems. Though the study does not prove that mother’s health problems cause the mentioned disorders in their children, it is the first to show the association between women obesity or diabetes during pregnancy and children’s autism and developmental delays. The study was published online on April, 9, in the journal Pediatrics.

According to the researchers, obesity in pregnant women increases 1.6 times their chances to give birth to a child with autism and more than twofold the chances of having a child with other developmental problems. Diabetes during pregnancy — either pregnancy related or type 2 — increases risk of language and learning delays in children 2.3 times. Though this is one among the early studies focusing on prenatal factors, it might explain rising rates of autism.

To study the above mentioned links between mothers and children health, the researchers analyzed data of 1,004 children aged 2 to 5 that were born in California. Among these children, 517 had autism spectrum disorder (ASD), 172 had developmental problems and 315 developed normally. All the children were taking part in a long-term study aimed to discover how genetics and environment influence chances of autism.

In the study, the researchers also analyzed possible links between mother’s high blood pressure during pregnancy and children’s neurological development. Though the number of women with high blood pressure was too small to make statistically significant conclusions, it pinpoints the necessary lifestyle changes a mother can do for the health and development of her future child.

To explain the link between mother’s health and child’s developmental delays or autism, the authors of the study suggested the following theoretical mechanisms.

One explanation suggests that when blood sugar level in expecting mothers is high, more glucose crosses placenta, leading to higher insulin levels in fetus and its faster growth. As the fetus grows faster than normally, it does not get enough oxygen from maternal blood necessary for brain development.

The other explanation is that obese mothers or those with diabetes develop increased insulin resistance and have higher levels of chronic inflammation. The baby’s brain development might be hampered when more inflammation-driven proteins cross placenta.

The study raises more questions than gives answers to, and further research is needed to confirm its results. According to a researcher from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who did not participate in the study, the study does not prove that metabolic disorders in expectant mothers cause autism or developmental delay in their children. Still, the recent study by the researchers from Dalhousie University also associates maternal obesity with higher chances of autism in children.