Maternal Obesity and Diabetes Tied to 2x or Higher Risk of Autism in Newborn

Maternal Obesity and Diabetes Tied to 2x or Higher Risk of Autism in Newborn

Two studies recently provided strong evidence of an association between a mother’s diagnosis of both obesity and diabetes and the risk of her having an autistic child.

The first study, published in the journal Autism Research and titled “Maternal metabolic risk factors for autism spectrum disorder—An analysis of electronic medical records and linked birth data,” was conducted by researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC).

Investigators led by senior researcher Katherine A. Bowers, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Pediatrics, used electronic medical records (EMR) of patients followed in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (DDBP) at CCHMC, as well as birth records obtained from the Ohio Department of Health, to identify factors that may be associated with a child’s risk for being diagnosed with autism or being on the autism spectrum, by comparing three groups of mothers:

  1. mothers who had a child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  2. mothers of children with a non-autism developmental disorder
  3. mothers with children having no developmental disorders

After analysis of close to 188,188 unique records, the investigators found that 487 mothers had a child with ASD, and 1,495 had a child with another type of developmental disorder. Researchers also identified statistically significant differences in maternal metabolic conditions and the development of ASD. Specifically,  pregnant mothers with both obesity and gestational diabetes had a twofold higher risk of a child with ASD compared to mothers of children with no developmental disorders, and those with either of the two conditions were at a 1.5 times higher risk.

“Although previous studies report a link between maternal obesity and diabetes during pregnancy to autism, we demonstrate that electronic medical data can verify and establish the extent of this link across large populations,” Dr. Bowers said in a press release. “Without placing any burden on study participants or the costs of developing an epidemiologic study from scratch, we can use the vast amounts of data already collected for clinical purposes to conduct broad population-based studies on this link to autism.”

The second study, published in the journal Pediatrics and titled “The Association of Maternal Obesity and Diabetes with Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities,” was conducted by researchers from the Center on Early Life Origins of Disease at Johns Hopkins University.

Investigators led by senior researcher Xiaobin Wang, ScD, Zanvyl Krieger chair in Child Health and director of Center on the Early Life Origins of Disease, examined the independent and combined effects of maternal pre-pregnancy obesity and maternal diabetes on the risk of ASD and other developmental disorders.

For this examination, investigators used records from an ongoing study, the Boston Birth Cohort, of 2,734 children (including 102 ASD cases) treated at Boston Medical Center between 1998 and 2014. The potential risks of ASD and other developmental disorders were compared among six groups defined by maternal pre-pregnancy obesity and diabetes status.

The investigators found that a combination of maternal pre-pregnancy obesity and diabetes were associated with a quadrupled risk of ASD.

“The finding is not a total surprise. Many studies have shown that maternal obesity and diabetes have an adverse impact on developing fetuses and their long-term metabolic health,” Dr. Wang said in a statement from an NIH press release. “Now we have further evidence that maternal obesity and diabetes also impact the long-term neural development of their children … we hope that our research findings can translate into positive public health messages that will increase the awareness of the importance of healthy weight among future parents, pregnant women and health care providers.”

Given the increasing annual incidence and prevalence of children with an ASD diagnosis, researchers in both studies recommended further investigation into the association found between the combination of maternal obesity and diabetes and autism in children, which might determine if a link definitely exists.

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