Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Children with autism have elevated levels of steroid hormones in the womb

Date:
June 3, 2014
Source:
University of Cambridge
Summary:
Scientists have discovered that children who later develop autism are exposed to elevated levels of steroid hormones (for example testosterone, progesterone and cortisol) in the womb. The finding may help explain why autism is more common in males than females, but should not be used to screen for the condition.

Scientists have discovered that children who later develop autism are exposed to elevated levels of steroid hormones (for example testosterone, progesterone and cortisol) in the womb.
Credit: © Valentina R. / Fotolia

Scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark have discovered that children who later develop autism are exposed to elevated levels of steroid hormones (for example testosterone, progesterone and cortisol) in the womb. The finding may help explain why autism is more common in males than females, but should not be used to screen for the condition.

Funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the results are published today in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

The team, led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and Dr Michael Lombardo in Cambridge and Professor Bent Nψrgaard-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 fetal 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 4 key 'sex steroid' hormones that are each synthesized, step-by-step from the preceding one, in the 'Δ4 sex steroid' pathway: progesterone, 17α-hydroxy-progesterone, androstenedione and testosterone. 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.

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."

He added: "These new results are particularly striking because they are found across all the subgroups on the autism spectrum, for the first time uniting those with Asperger Syndrome, classic autism, or Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not-Otherwise-Specified. We now want to test if the same finding is found in females with autism."

Dr Michael Lombardo said: "This result potentially has very important implications about the early biological mechanisms that alter brain development in autism and also pinpoints an important window in fetal development when such mechanisms exert their effects."

Steroid hormones are particularly important because they exert influence on the process of how instructions in the genetic code are translated into building proteins. The researchers believe that altering this process during periods when the building blocks for the brain are being laid down may be particularly important in explaining how genetic risk factors for autism get expressed.

Dr Lombardo adds: "Our discovery here meshes nicely with other recent findings that highlight the prenatal period around 15 weeks gestation as a key period when important genetic risk mechanisms for autism are working together to be expressed in the developing brain."

Professor Baron-Cohen said: "These results should not be taken as a reason to jump to steroid hormone blockers as a treatment as this could have unwanted side effects and may have little to no effect in changing the potentially permanent effects that fetal steroid hormones exert during the early foundational stages of brain development."

He cautioned further: "Nor should these results be taken as a promising prenatal screening test. There is considerable overlap between the groups and our findings showed differences found at an average group level, rather than at the level of accurately predicting diagnosis for individuals. The value of the new results lies in identifying key biological mechanisms during fetal development that could play important roles in atypical brain development in autism."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Cambridge. The original story is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. S Baron-Cohen, B Auyeung, B Nψrgaard-Pedersen, D M Hougaard, M W Abdallah, L Melgaard, A S Cohen, B Chakrabarti, L Ruta, M V Lombardo. Elevated fetal steroidogenic activity in autism. Molecular Psychiatry, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/mp.2014.48

Cite This Page:

University of Cambridge. "Children with autism have elevated levels of steroid hormones in the womb." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 June 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140603092428.htm>.
University of Cambridge. (2014, June 3). Children with autism have elevated levels of steroid hormones in the womb. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 27, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140603092428.htm
University of Cambridge. "Children with autism have elevated levels of steroid hormones in the womb." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140603092428.htm (accessed July 27, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

University Quiz Implies Atheists Are Smarter Than Christians

University Quiz Implies Atheists Are Smarter Than Christians

Newsy (July 25, 2014) — An online quiz from a required course at Ohio State is making waves for suggesting atheists are inherently smarter than Christians. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Beatings and Addiction: Pakistan Drug 'clinic' Tortures Patients

Beatings and Addiction: Pakistan Drug 'clinic' Tortures Patients

AFP (July 24, 2014) — A so-called drugs rehab 'clinic' is closed down in Pakistan after police find scores of ‘patients’ chained up alleging serial abuse. Duration 03:05 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

Newsy (July 24, 2014) — The FDA approved Targiniq ER on Wednesday, a painkiller designed to keep users from abusing it. Like any new medication, however, it has doubters. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Can Watching TV Make You Feel Like A Failure?

Can Watching TV Make You Feel Like A Failure?

Newsy (July 24, 2014) — A study by German researchers claims watching TV while you're stressed out can make you feel guilty and like a failure. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins