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Mothers' Diabetes Linked to Risk of Autism

Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network
Date Published: 
October 10, 2016

Researchers have identified an unusual risk for a child developing autism: his mother’s diabetes. Several studies found that pregnant women with diabetes – including the temporary kind – had a higher risk of delivering a child with autism than mothers who weren't diabetic.1, 2, 3, 13

This research is important because the rate of diabetes, like the rate of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), has been rising in recent decades. Gestational diabetes, a temporary condition that only occurs during pregnancy, affects as many as one in 11 expectant mothers. Cases of another form of diabetes, called Type 2, also have been rising and affecting pregnancies.4-5 Almost 3 percent of men and women ages 20 to 44 have diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

If not detected or controlled, diabetes can cause serious problems during pregnancy, including preeclampsia (dangerously high blood pressure), abnormally large babies, and difficult deliveries.The baby also may have problems with breathing or blood sugar after birth.5-6

Glorie Acevedo of Puerto Rico was shocked to learn she had gestational diabetes when she was 30 weeks pregnant with twins. Her diet was healthy, she said. "My doctor told me it was common. He said, 'It's not your fault. You have twins.'" She managed her diabetes through changes to her diet. It was completely controlled by the time her fraternal twins were born at 34 weeks. One twin, Diego, developed autism spectrum disorder, but he no longer shows any signs of it, said Mrs. Acevedo, who participates in Interactive Autism Network Research.

Who's at highest risk for gestational diabetes?

Photo of twin boys, reprinted with permissionMany factors can increase a woman's risk for developing gestational diabetes. They include:

  • Having twins, which doubles the risk7
  • Age. Risk begins rising progressively at age 25.8
  • Race and ethnicity. In the United States, Asian, Hispanic, African-American, and Native American women face a higher risk that non-Hispanic whites.9-10
  • Being overweight or obese6
  • Having a family history of diabetes6

During pregnancy, hormones from the placenta can interfere with the work of the mother's insulin.5 Insulin is a hormone that transports glucose (sugar) from food into cells, where it turns into energy. Someone develops diabetes when that process malfunctions and excess sugar stays in the bloodstream. Gestational diabetes usually disappears after delivery, although those mothers are at higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, and their children are at risk for pre-diabetes, later in life.11

The risks for Type 2 diabetes are similar to those for gestational diabetes. Both can be managed through diet and exercise, pills and/or insulin shots. In Type 1 diabetes, people are usually diagnosed in childhood and require daily injections of insulin.

What's the autism-diabetes link?

Photo of Dr. Anny Xiang, lead researcher in autism-diabetes study at Kaiser PermanenteScientists have been trying to tease out the relationship between a mother's diabetes and her child's autism in recent years.

Researchers at Kaiser Permanente Southern California examined the prenatal records of more than 322,000 mothers; almost 3,400 of their children were later diagnosed with autism. In analyzing data, they took into account other factors that could affect the results, such as a mother's age, race, ethnicity, level of education, and history of heart, lung, kidney or liver disease, or cancer. They also looked at smoking and weight in a subset of the mothers. They made those adjustments to ensure they were only calculating the effect of diabetes on autism risk.1

They found that moms diagnosed with gestational diabetes by 26 weeks of pregnancy were 42 percent more likely to have a child with autism, compared to women without diabetes.1 To put it in perspective, the risk of having a child with autism is about 1.5 percent; gestational diabetes raises the risk to a little over 2 percent, according to that study.

Moms' diabetes didn’t raise autism risk in some babies

Interestingly, women who were diagnosed with diabetes after 26 weeks of pregnancy did not have a higher risk of having a child with ASD. Perhaps that is because those children were exposed to high blood sugar after a period of critical brain development had passed, or because their mothers' diabetes was mild, the researchers speculated.1 In the United States, most doctors screen pregnant women for diabetes between their 24th and 28th week of pregnancy because that is when gestational diabetes usually develops.

Also, children whose mothers had Type 2 diabetes did not have a higher autism risk. Those mothers knew they had diabetes before they became pregnant, so they and their doctors could have monitored and controlled their blood sugar during early pregnancy, according to one theory. The lead researcher, biostatistician Anny Hui Xiang, PhD, said, "This is just speculation: perhaps the mom with known diabetes [before pregnancy] can make sure her blood sugar is under control, but the mom who doesn’t know she has diabetes will not get treatment until she is diagnosed."

What happens when a mother has obesity and diabetes?

Across the country, researchers launched two similar diabetes-autism studies, but with a few crucial differences. One group studied a group of mothers in Boston with a higher rate of obesity and diabetes than average.2 Being obese raises the risks of developing Type 2 diabetes12 and gestational diabetes.6

"The global epidemics of obesity and diabetes affect all ages, including pregnant women," said Xiaobin Wang, MD, one of the researchers. They wondered: Did having both conditions produce a combined effect that was greater than having just diabetes or obesity alone?

It did. According to this study, mothers who had diabetes and obesity before pregnancy were four times more likely to have a child with autism. Moms who had obesity and gestational diabetes were three times more likely to have a child with ASD. The Boston study was smaller than the one from Kaiser Permanente. Researchers analyzed the pregnancies of 2,734 women; 102 of their babies eventually were diagnosed with autism.2

The majority of those women were low-income, black or Hispanic. Do the results apply to mothers in other economic, racial or ethnic groups? "Maybe," said Dr. Wang, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "The association between diabetes and ASD was seen across many studies of different populations," she said.

For example, an international research group reviewed 12 different studies from the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Egypt. They concluded that maternal diabetes is "significantly associated with a greater risk of ASD in the offspring."13

Another study, conducted in Cincinnati, Ohio, reached similar conclusions when examining both obesity and diabetes during pregnancy. This large study involved children seen by developmental pediatricians at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, as well as thousands of children without developmental conditions born in the same region.3 Expectant mothers who were obese or who had gestational diabetes were 1.5 times more likely to have a child with autism than other mothers in the study. Having both diabetes and obesity doubled the risk of autism in babies.3

What do these autism-diabetes studies prove?

Obstetrician/gynecologist Svena D. Julien MD, courtesy of Hopkins MedicineDo these studies prove that diabetes, especially when combined with obesity, causes autism in some babies?

One of the mantras of science is that correlation (meaning a link or an association) does not equal causation. But discovering a correlation can be the first step in proving a cause and effect. One important factor in establishing a cause and effect is whether there's a scientific reason why something, in this case diabetes, might cause, contribute to, or trigger autism.

"Research is uncertain as to how, but theories include hyperglycemia [high levels of blood sugar] in the mother," explained Svena Julien, MD, assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. "Glucose is toxic to many tissues, including the developing fetal brain.”

To combat damage caused by high sugar, Dr. Julien explained, the body releases other substances that cause inflammation, which itself is potentially harmful. Having excess body fat, which sometimes goes along with diabetes, also can create chronic inflammation, according to some researchers.13

Besides triggering inflammation, diabetes also could reduce the amount of oxygen a fetus gets.14 In short, diabetes influences the levels of insulin, oxygen, and inflammation in the womb, changing the environment in which the fetal brain is forming, Dr. Xiang's research group theorized.

Diabetes could affect the fetus through another avenue: oxidative stress. "Oxidative stress occurs during normal metabolism," the body’s process of using food and water, Dr. Julien said. "Certain substances undergo chemical reactions, and the by-products of those reactions release what are called free radicals. These substances can damage tissues and cells and lead to cell death,” she explained. A person’s antioxidants work to keep the free radicals in check. However, diabetes knocks that balance out of whack, raising the risk of oxidative stress.

Reducing risk before and during pregnancy

More research needs to be done to "determine if there is a true cause and effect" between a mother’s diabetes and her child’s autism, Dr. Julien said. Nonetheless, she and several researchers said, it's important to be aware of diabetes before and early in pregnancy, and, if diagnosed, to manage it properly.

Dr. Wang noted that obesity and diabetes can lead to complications in pregnancy, beyond a risk of autism. It's important to prevent obesity and diagnose diabetes early, "ideally before conception," she said.

A woman who is obese, has had gestational diabetes before, or has a strong family history of diabetes, could have her blood glucose levels tested before pregnancy and early in pregnancy, Dr. Julien said. Treatment early in pregnancy gives diabetic women and those at risk "the best chances to decrease the risk of autism," she said.

Recent Studies of Mothers' Diabetes and Autism Risk

Study Population Studied Factors Examined Results
Kaiser Permanente1 322,323 children, 3,388 with ASD, in Southern California Type 2 and gestational diabetes (GD) 42% risk increase for ASD when GD diagnosed by 26 weeks, no ASD increase for Type 2 or later onset of GD
Boston Birth Cohort2 2,734 children, 102 with ASD, from low-income minority population in Boston, Mass. Pre-pregnancy diabetes (type not specified) and gestational diabetes, plus obesity Obese mothers with diabetes three to four times more likely to have child with ASD
Cincinnati Children's Hospital3 38,810 control children, 503 kids with ASD, 1,533 kids with developmental delay in Cincinnati, Ohio, area Obesity and gestational diabetes Mothers with obesity or GD were 1.5 times more likely to have a child with ASD than controls. Having both diabetes and obesity doubled the ASD risk
Meta-analysis13 A review of 12 studies in 5 countries Diabetes diagnosed before and during pregnancy Diabetes "significantly" increases risk of autism in baby
Israeli study14 231,271 children born in southern Israel, of which 2409 were later hospitalized for neuropsychiatric reasons Gestational diabetes (GD) in mothers, and neuropsychiatric hospitalizations in children Higher risk for eating disorders (486), sleep apnea (1,347), or ASD–associated hospitalizations (32)
University of California15 227 mothers of 2-5 year-olds with ASD Maternal diabetes and anti-fetal (AF) brain antibodies In children with severe ASD, moms who had diabetes while pregnant were more likely to have AF brain antibodies.
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Photos reprinted with permission of: 1) iStock, 2) Glorie Acevedo, 3) Kaiser Permanente Southern California (Dr. Xiang), 4) Johns Hopkins Medicine (Dr. Julien).

References: 
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