Prenatal Study Hopes to find Autism Biomarkers

The Telethon Institute for Child Health Research’s Autism Research Team are recruiting pregnant Perth women who already have an autistic child, to take part in a landmark study which hopes to discover biomarkers for autism.

“This is the second recruitment drive for an ongoing study looking to identify biomarkers, or risk-factors,” group leader Associate Professor Andrew Whitehouse says.

A/Prof Whitehouse and his group have found that autism may be linked with enlarged head circumference and prenatal exposure to increased levels of testosterone.

With one in every 100 people around the world affected by autism and the incidence increasing, researchers are working towards in utero detection and intervention that starts at birth.

“Autism is not usually picked up until a child is between two and three years of age, often when a child is not meeting language milestones,” A/Prof Whitehouse said.

“If we could detect autism much earlier, we could start intervention when the course of the brain development is much easier to alter.  We’re also hoping to provide extra training to child health nurses to help them identify warning-signs for autism at check-ups during the first year of life.”

The group will use a new ultrasound technique to image the brain of the foetus as it develops in utero.

“Previously, this imaging could only be achieved with the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which is potentially harmful to both mother and child,” A/Prof Whitehouse says.

The researchers will compare brain development and prenatal testosterone levels of 100 “at risk” pregnancies, compromised of pregnant women with a previous autistic child and foetuses at increased genetic risk of autism, with 100 control pregnancies, where the women have had a previous child with typical development.

“If we can see differences between the groups in the level of testosterone or the trajectory of prenatal brain development, we may be able to identify these factors as biomarkers.”

“By identify biomarkers early in life, even prenatal life, we can then determine if a child is at risk of autism and do all the right things from the beginning and perhaps alter the path of brain development.”

Pregnant women who are interested in participating can contact Tammy Gibbs of the Autism Research Team at tammyg@ichr.uwa.edu.au

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