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Children With Autism Have Elevated Levels Of Steroid Hormones In The Womb, Says Study

Edit: Shenzhen OK Biotech Technology Co., Ltd. (SZOB)    Date: Jul 09, 2015

Cambridge, UK (Scicasts) — Children who later develop autism are exposed to elevated levels of steroid hormones (for example testosterone, progesterone and cortisol) in the womb, according to scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. The finding may help explain why autism is more common in males than females. However, the researchers caution it should not be used to screen for the condition.

The team of researchers, led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and Dr. Michael Lombardo in Cambridge and Professor Bent Nørgaard-Pedersen in Denmark, utilized approximately 19,500 amniotic fluid samples stored in a Danish biobank from individuals born between 1993-1999. Amniotic fluid surrounds the baby in the womb during pregnancy and is collected when some women choose to have an amniocentesis around 15-16 weeks of pregnancy. This coincides with a critical period for early brain development and sexual differentiation, and thus allows scientists access into this important window in foetal development. The researchers identified amniotic fluid samples from 128 males later diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition and matched these up with information from a central register of all psychiatric diagnoses in Denmark.

Within the amniotic fluid the researchers looked at four key ‘sex steroid’ hormones that are each synthesized, step-by-step from the preceding one. They also tested the steroid hormone cortisol that lies outside this pathway. The researchers found that levels of all steroid hormones were highly associated with each other and most importantly, that the autism group on average had higher levels of all steroid hormones, compared to a typically developing male comparison group. The results of the study were published June 03 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Professor Baron-Cohen said: “This is one of the earliest non-genetic biomarkers that has been identified in children who go on to develop autism. We previously knew that elevated prenatal testosterone is associated with slower social and language development, better attention to detail, and more autistic traits. Now, for the first time, we have also shown that these steroid hormones are elevated in children clinically diagnosed with autism. Because some of these hormones are produced in much higher quantities in males than in females, this may help us explain why autism is more common in males.”


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