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Autism May Be Linked to Mother’s Autoimmune Disease

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

A new study claims that children of mothers who have autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease have up to a three times greater risk for autism.

Although the association between autism and a maternal history of type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis had been found in earlier research, the researchers behind the new study say that theirs is the first to find a link between autism and celiac disease. People with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley.

“This finding reinforces the suggestion that autoimmune processes are connected somehow with the cause of autism and autism spectrum disorder,” said researcher William W. Eaton, chairman of the Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. “This finding is on the pathway of finding the cause of autism.”

Eaton noted is his report, which appears in the July 6 online edition of Pediatrics, that there is no clinical significance to the finding but that it could guide future research as scientists try to pin down the cause or causes of autism.

One reason autoimmune diseases might have a role in autism is genetic, Eaton said. Children who are born underweight or premature are at higher risk for autism, and both of these obstetric problems are associated with celiac disease, he added.

“There may be an overlap in the genetics of some of the autoimmune diseases and autism that would not be trivial,” he said. “Autism is strongly inherited, but we don’t have the faintest idea where. But this may point a flashlight to areas of the genome that connect to autism.” In addition, there might also be environmental triggers that affect the fetus, he said.

For the study, Eaton’s team collected data on 3,325 Danish children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, including 1,089 diagnosed with infantile autism. The children were born between 1993 and 2004, and their data was part of the Danish National Psychiatric Registry. Data on family members with autoimmune diseases came from the Danish National Hospital Register.

The researchers found that children whose mothers had autoimmune disease were at a higher risk of developing autism spectrum disorder than children of mothers who did not have these conditions. In addition, the risk of infantile autism was increased in children with a family history of type 1 diabetes.

The increased risk that autoimmune diseases contribute to autism is not huge, Eaton said.

“The increased risk for type 1 diabetes is a little less than two times, for rheumatoid arthritis it’s about 1.5 times and for celiac disease it’s more than three times,” Eaton said.

“That’s enough to impress an epidemiologist, but not enough to make anybody in the general population start changing their behavior.”

Dr. Hjordis O. Atladottir, from the Institute of Public Health at the University of Aarhus in Denmark and the study’s lead researcher, said that the findings are important because they support the theory that autism is somehow associated with disturbances in the immune system.

“It is important to emphasize that these results should not cause worry or be unsettling for parents or future parents with any of the above-mentioned diseases,” Atladottir said. “The large majority of people affected by an autoimmune disease do not have children with autism.”

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