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Could Ultrasounds Be Causing Autism?

Could prenatal ultrasounds cause autism?
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

The search for the root cause of autism wages on... this time, with research linking it to a very surprising source: ultrasounds. (Yes, really.)

Before you get too alarmed, it's important to note that the study was done on mice, not humans, and there's still lots more to explore about what it means for us. But the evidence it did turn up was pretty compelling. We first spotted it in a recent article by Jennifer Margulis (author of The Business of Babies) in The Daily Beast. Of the 2006 Yale University study, Margulis writes that "prenatal exposure to ultrasound waves changed the way neurons in mice distributed themselves in the brain... that a smaller percentage of cells migrated to the upper cortical layers of the mouse brain and a larger percentage to the lower layers and white matter."

What's more, Margulis notes that there are more neurologically damaged children in the U.S. than ever. "As of 2007, 5.4 million children (the entire population of Finland) have been diagnosed with attention disorders, and today one in every eighty-eight children in America has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder."

But we're not alone. Countries like Japan, France, Germany, and Canada are seeing the autism spike, too. So what do we all have in common? Apparently it's not our vaccine schedules, because they're all different from one another. And it's not our labor practices, which also vary. (Some of the countries noted have a higher instance of unmedicated vaginal births, compared to our higher rate of medicated births and c-sections.) But here's the one key thread: we're all technologically-advanced, industrialized nations, that regularly give our pregnant women ultrasounds. And while the act of getting an ultrasound is a simple, non-invasive procedure, it's important to remember what's really happening during one.

According to the article:

"The ultrasounds done on pregnant women today use sound waves with eight times the intensity used before 1991. This time period roughly coincides with the alarming increase in the incidence of autism within our population. Even more disturbing, the majority of technicians using ultrasound machines (as many as 96 percent) do not understand the safety margins they must adhere to in order to make sure the fetus is not exposed to harm.”

So what are we to do? The lead author of the 2006 study warned that "all nonmedical use of ultrasound on pregnant women should be avoided. We should be using the same care with ultrasound as with X-rays."

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