Scientists have made strides recently in coming up with ways to detect autism earlier in children. But a recent study suggests it might be possible to diagnose the disorder right at the moment of birth. The telltale signs, they found, can be seen by analyzing the placenta.
The study looked at placentas following 217 births, 117 from families that have previously had one or more children born with autism and were thus at a higher risk to have another and 100 from normal families. They found that placentas from the high-risk group more likely to have abnormal folds and creases, what the authors called “trophoblast inclusions.” Shockingly, placentas from the higher risk group were eight times more likely to have the abnormalities. As many as 15 abnormalities were found in at-risk placentas. Conversely, no more than 2 were found in the normal placentas.
The children from the study are between 2 and 5 years of age, so it’s still too early to tell how many in all will eventually develop autism. If it does turn out in the next year or so that the abnormal folds do predict whether or not a child will be autistic, they could be used as an early indicator for clinicians. Identifying high-risk children at birth would be a much welcomed diagnostic tool as parents and doctors could immediately begin interventions for the child early when they could have the most impact.
Harvey Kliman, a researcher at the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at the Yale School of Medicine who led the study said in a press release: “I hope that diagnosing the risk of developing autism by examining the placenta at birth will become routine, and that the children who are shown to have increased numbers of trophoblast inclusions will have early interventions and an improved quality of life as a result of this test.” Right now only about 10 to 15 percent of placentas are analyzed, prompted by complications during pregnancy or death of the newborn.
The study was published in the April 25 issue of Biological Psychiatry.
The developing brain is very vulnerable during gestation. The placenta, which regulates the passage of substances between the mother and the fetus, is obviously a critical component to fetal development. The placenta’s genetic material is fetal, so it can serve as a kind of first look at the baby’s development. In 2006, Kliman published a study involving 13 children with autism that showed, not only do placental abnormalities occur with the birth of these children, but that the more abnormalities present, the more severe the resulting autism.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 50 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While the rate of diagnosis as been increasing over the past several decades, the cause remains unknown – and controversial. Some purport that much of the increase is due to greater awareness and more thorough screening rather than an actual rise in incidence. Others disagree, citing a link between vaccines, for instance, despite a growing body of evidence that shows no link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorders.
Right now the best way to predict a child’s risk for autism early on is to look at the family history. Couples who have already had a child with autism are nine times more likely to have another with autism than couples with no history of the disorder. What unfortunately happens then is that those couples with no history have to wait until outward signs show themselves, which normally happens when the child is already 2 or 3 years old. If the placental abnormalities test holds up, it could make a huge difference toward reducing the severity of autism spectrum disorders, and give quality of life back to many.