Assessing the risk for autism at birth: Research is getting closer

Published on Monday, April 29, 2013

 Over 95 percent of the placentas of infants who are at the greatest risk of autism contained abnormal cells.

Researchers  at the University of California Davis and Yale University are taking a serious look at how environmental and genetic factors influence the development of autism. They have just completed the first phase of developing a test that may identify the risk for autism at birth. Newborns with siblings diagnosed with autism were compared to newborns whose siblings did not have autism. They found that the placentas of infant siblings of children with autism had physical markers that may predict autism. 

During the next phase of the research they will follow the infants with placental autism markers to see whether or not they develop symptoms of autism as toddlers.  Diagnosing the risk of developing autism at birth may lead to timely early interventions and an improved quality of life.

The researchers caution that the study found an association between placental markers (trophoblast inclusions) and autism risk, rather than a direct correlation with autism itself. They also point out that the markers are a symptom of altered physiology or a genetic predisposition, and are almost certain to be triggered by environmental factors.

The broader goal of the research initiative (MARBLES) is to understand the genetic and environmental causes of autism, identify early signs of autism, and develop diagnostic tests and interventions that can reduce the effects of autism or even prevent it. The MARBLES study is unique because it follows mothers before, during, and after their pregnancies. The longitudinal approach allows researchers to collect information  about  the infants’  pre-natal and post-natal environment.

The ongoing research is funded by a public-private partnership involving: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, MIND Institute at the University of California Davis, Autism Speaks, The Allen Foundation, Cure Autism Now, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Additional information can be found at the MIND Institute website.