Over the last decade, the number of children in the U.S. with autism has risen by a remarkable 78 percent, according to a 2012 study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, one out of every 88 children born in the U.S. has a disorder that falls within the autism spectrum, an umbrella term used for a number of complex brain development disorders marked by communication and social interaction problems.
While improved testing methods, increased awareness, and a broader understanding of the disorder have all contributed to the increased risk of children diagnosed with autism, they don’t fully explain such a dramatic increase.
The earlier a child with autism receives treatment, the better the outcome. Unfortunately, children don’t usually get diagnosed with the disorder until they manifest behavioral symptoms, which appear around the age of two or three in most kids, though many don’t exhibit symptoms until much older. Behavioral specialists have long thought that if children could be identified at birth with autism they might benefit greatly from early forms of treatment. Now the results of new research may finally allow specialists the opportunity they’ve been wanting.
According to a new study from researchers at Yale University, a child’s risk of autism could be determined by examining the placenta for abnormalities shortly after birth. The results of this study were published in April in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
An Early Start
As part of the study, researchers examined 117 placentas from the mothers of newborns who already had a child with some form of autism. Once a woman gives birth to a child with autism, any future children she has will have a higher risk of developing the disorder. Researchers then compared those placenta samples to those of 100 women who had already given birth to children that were developing normally.
During pregnancy, a woman’s placenta keeps the still-developing baby’s supply of blood separate from the mother’s, while also providing the child with nutrients and oxygen. At delivery, the placenta, or afterbirth, accompanies an infant out of the womb.
Researchers found that the women who had previously given birth to a child with autism had significantly different placentas when compared to the other mothers. The most marked difference between the two sets of placentas were abnormal cell growth and abnormal folds.
The placentas from mothers of children with autism were nearly eight times more likely to have two or more of these abnormal folds when compared to the other mothers’ placentas. A placenta that contained four or more abnormalities indicated the child had a 74 percent chance of developing autism. While the risks were not as high, researchers noted that any child born with a placenta that contained two or more abnormalities also had an elevated probability of developing autism. However, since the children involved in the study were newborns, researchers do not know for certain that each has autism, only that they each have a higher risk. Researchers will track the progress of each child as he or she develops.
Early Detection Key
Researchers say that this new form of autism test can be conducted prior to delivery, and promises to offer doctors the earliest form of testing possible. While this test won’t be able to tell a parent definitively whether their child will have autism, parents will still benefit greatly from knowing in advance their child’s risk factor for developing the disorder.
While researchers don’t entirely understand how folds located in the placenta directly relate to the development of autism, they suspect these abnormalities are caused by an increase of cellular growth, which causes the brains of children with autism to grow more rapidly earlier in life. Whatever the cause, this new testing method may eventually help researchers gain a better understanding of what’s behind the growing number of children being born with autism in the future.