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Can Some Moms' Antibodies Cause Autism?

Mommy and her newborn
Photograph by ThinkStock

Autism in children has been blamed on everything from bad vaccines to bad luck. But a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry suggests that something else may play a role in certain cases: mom, herself. Some mothers of children who suffer from autism seem to have immune system antibodies that damage their fetuses' brain proteins, says U.S. News & World Report.

The team that made the discovery —a group of scientists from the University of California, Davis MIND Institute—thinks that the news isn't all bad. They are hopeful that their findings, discouraging though they may be, could provide leads for the development of new drugs.

The scientists have also come up with a name for the type of autism that appears connected to these antibodies: Maternal Autoantibody-Related (MAR) autism. It may account for as much as 23 percent of all cases of autism, they say.

In conducting their research, scientists studied blood samples from 246 mothers of autistic children and 149 mothers whose children do not have the disorder. Their findings: The former group of mothers were more than 21 times as likely to have MAR antibodies that affected fetal brain proteins.

"This latest research takes us one step closer” to clearing up some mysteries surrounding autism, says Dr. Andrew Adesman, who is chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, located in New Hyde Park. Adesman, who was not involved in the study, adds, “If maternal antibodies are indeed responsible for causing some cases of autism, then there is the possibility that a blood test could be done prenatally or even prior to getting pregnant to assess one's risk of having a child on the autism spectrum disorder."

Adds Judy Van de Water, the study’s principal investigator, "We hope that, one day, we can tell a mother more precisely what her antibody profile means for her child, then target interventions more effectively."

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