Abnormal Metabolites In Pregnant Women May Cause Autism, New Study Suggests

Anna Harnes

A new paper conducted by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Arizona State University, and the Mayo Clinic has shown that mothers of children who have been diagnosed with autism had "significantly" different levels of metabolites present in the body up to five years after giving birth. Scientists are now hoping to conduct an investigation into whether the abnormal levels of metabolites could be a cause of the neurodevelopmental disorder.

According to a synopsis published in Science Daily, 59 blood samples were taken from mothers -- 30 of whom had autistic children and 29 of whom had neurotypical kids -- between two to five years after giving birth. The two different groups had different levels in their metabolites, which were then narrowed down to five subgroups. These variances were linked to deficiencies in folate, vitamin B12, and carnitine-conjugated molecules. Carnitine-related metabolites appeared to be the strongest correlation of the three.

"We had multiple metabolites that were associated with the carnitine metabolism," explained Juergen Hahn, the head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rensselaer and one of the co-authors of the paper. "This suggests that carnitine and mothers is something that should be looked at."

Hahn added the new data could potentially lead to advancements such as specific blood work tests for expecting or hopeful parents.

"A blood test would not be able to tell if your child has autism or not, but it could tell if you're at a higher risk," Hahn said. "And the classification of higher risk, in this case, can actually be significant."

Fellow co-author James Adams, who serves as the director of the Autism/Asperger's Research Program at Arizona State University, noted that the research team's next steps hope to confirm the hypothesis by collecting samples during pregnancy.

"Based on these results, we are now conducting a new study of stored blood samples collected during pregnancy, to determine if those metabolites are also different during pregnancy," he said.

Autism has been the focus of numerous studies over the past decade following the exponential growth in diagnoses -- especially in children. According to Autism Speaks, around one in 166 youngsters were diagnosed with autism in 2004. By 2018, the ratio had shifted to one in 59 -- close to a 300 percent increase.

Though it was once believed that the use of vaccines was behind the increase of the disorder, recent studies have debunked such allegations. However, due to the widespread dissemination of rumors that connected autism and vaccines, distrust of the latter remains a persistent issue in much of the world -- especially as several new vaccines protecting against the novel coronavirus have been met by pushback, despite the growing COVID-19 death tolls.