by Susan Gosine
Can pregnant women who are also mothers of children with autism help to unravel the real cause of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)? Top autism researchers believe that pregnant women may hold the key to one of the most debated medical phenomenon of the century: what exactly is the cause of autism?
Autism is an absorption in self-centered subjective mental activity (daydreams, fantasies, delusions, and hallucinations) usually accompanied by marked withdrawal from reality, a mental disorder originating in infancy that is characterized by self-absorption, inability to interact socially, repetitive behavior, and language dysfunction (echolalia).
Researchers believe studying pregnant women and closely monitoring their children until they reach age three could provide answers to genetic and environmental factors that contribute to ASD. It could also help to identify early biological signs of the disorders.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study will incorporate 1200 participants of children with autism. They will complete surveys and consent to giving biological samples when needed. Samples will also be taken from the children who will undergo periodic assessments for autism
The $16.5 million program titled Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI), one of the largest research studies to investigate the early causes of ASD, was launched on June 9, in Philadelphia. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences donated $14 million and Autism Speaks, $2.5 million to fund the program. Grantee Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D., a Drexel University Principal Investigator, heads the team of researchers involved in the study.
The researchers will set up a collection for epidemiologic data on continuous ASD behavioral domains during pregnancy and early life, collection and banking of biological samples, and follow-up of the newborn siblings through 36 months of age. They will focus on four specific areas:
- Determine whether markers of maternal autoimmune status, measured during pregnancy, at delivery and at six months post-partum, are associated with autism risk
- Determine whether in utero exposure to persistent organic pollutants is associated with autism risk
- Explore maternal and child epigenetic marks as predictors of ASD risk
- Assess whether polymorphisms, which may affect brain development, and in utero agonist exposure are associated with autism risk and explore potential interaction of genotype and exposure
The collected data will be stored in a bank for future use in ongoing epidemiologic investigations of potential risk factors and risk biomarkers for ASD.
ASD has become one of the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States of America and affects 1 in every 150 children. The study seeks the cause, means of treatment or possible cures for the disorders. But the program is still in need of participants, without whom it would be impossible to proceed. Women who are less than 20 weeks pregnant, have autistic children and live within the research sites in Pennsylvania, California and Maryland are urged to apply. Participants could become part of a major break through in the possible cause and cure for ASD.
The coordinating center for the program is Drexel University School of Public Health, Philadelphia. Local research sites include Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, University of California at Davis M.I.N.D Institute, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, Oakland, California.