Sunday, 28 December 2014

Pre-eclampsia exposure and autism

A few weeks back, the paper from Cheryl Walker and colleagues [1] reporting that: "Children with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] were twice as likely to have been exposed in utero to preeclampsia as controls with TD [typical development]" provided some column inches in certain media quarters.
How dare you insult Hero's Duty, you little guttersnipe!

Although not the first time that pre-eclampsia - a hypertensive state characterised by proteinuria occurring during pregnancy and potentially affected by/affecting the placenta - has been mentioned in the autism research literature [2] (open-access), the value-added bit to the Walker paper was the use of participants/data included in the CHARGE study. As an aside, CHARGE has been mentioned a few times on this blog (see here for example).

The Walker study looked at maternal self-reports and details "abstracted from medical records" of "Preeclampsia and placental insufficiency" in their cohort comprising some 500 children diagnosed with an ASD and nearly 200 diagnosed with developmental delay (DD) compared against 350 asymptomatic controls. Compared against those TD children, those with autism were more frequently reported to have been exposed to pre-eclampsia during gestation. Further, some relationship between pre-eclampsia severity and autism risk was also observed. The authors also noted: "Placental insufficiency appeared responsible for the increase in DD risk associated with severe preeclampsia."

Whilst appreciating that not nearly a week goes by without scientific research linking something or other to a higher risk of autism and the subsequent possibility of 'correlation burnout', these are interesting results. Pregnancy hypertension - high blood pressure - as part of pre-eclampsia is an important factor driving various adverse effects/events which can impact on both developing foetus and mother (e.g. placental abruption). Maternal hypertension as part of the condition called metabolic syndrome has previously been linked to an increased risk of offspring autism [3] (see here for my take on the study) as well as being a potential stand-alone factor [4].

The link between pre-eclampsia and placental insufficiency (where the placenta does not deliver the optimal amount of oxygen or nutrients to the baby) is also a potentially intriguing point with autism in mind. Regular readers might remember some of my previous discussions on the Barker (foetal programming) hypothesis proposed by the late David Barker, and the idea that nutrition in-utero might have some pretty profound consequences for offspring later life health. Although hesitant to say that issues mediated by placental function are directly linked to autism, there is a growing appreciation that the placenta may be a further point of inquiry when it comes to offspring neurodevelopmental functions. Take for example other work by Walker and colleagues related to trophoblast inclusions in relation to autism [5] (see here for my previous discussion on this research) as one example. Perhaps more speculatively is the suggestion that a short interpregnancy interval (IPI) might also increase the risk of offspring autism [6] and what this could also mean from a 'depletion of micronutrients' point of view potentially similar to a placental insufficiency scenario.

What is becoming clearer from this and other research on the 'nine months that made us' in relation to autism or other neurodevelopmental diagnoses, is that further efforts are required to tease apart various factors. So:

(a) What are the process by which adverse pregnancy conditions impact on offspring outcomes? Do we already have research precedents as per the paper by van Gelder and colleagues [7] talking about "physiological changes early in pregnancy that manifest in gestational hypertension and pre-eclampsia may play a role in the aetiology of major birth defects, including congenital heart defects and hypospadias". Both congential heart defects and hypospadias have been previously mentioned in the autism research literature (see here and see here respectively).


(b) Linked to the previous question(s), who is more likely to be at risk of such issues, and what intervention(s) might mean for offspring and mother alike?

Music: Dolly sings Jolene at Glastonbury 2014.


[1] Walker CK. et al. Preeclampsia, Placental Insufficiency, and Autism Spectrum Disorder or Developmental Delay. JAMA Pediatrics. 2014. 8 December.

[2] Gardener H. et al. Prenatal risk factors for autism: comprehensive meta-analysis. Br J Psychiatry. 2009 Jul;195(1):7-14.

[3] Krakowiak P. et al. Maternal metabolic conditions and risk for autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Pediatrics. 2012 May;129(5):e1121-8.

[4] Polo-Kantola P. et al. Obstetric risk factors and autism spectrum disorders in Finland. J Pediatr. 2014 Feb;164(2):358-65.

[5] Walker CK. et al. Trophoblast Inclusions Are Significantly Increased in the Placentas of Children in Families at Risk for Autism. Biological Psychiatry. 2013; 74: 204-211.

[6] Gunnes N. et al. Interpregnancy interval and risk of autistic disorder. Epidemiology. 2013 Nov;24(6):906-12.

[7] van Gelder M. et al. Maternal hypertensive disorders, antihypertensive medication use, and the risk of birth defects: a case-control study. BJOG. 2014 Nov 14. doi: 10.1111/1471-0528.13138.

---------- Walker CK, Krakowiak P, Baker A, Hansen RL, Ozonoff S, & Hertz-Picciotto I (2014). Preeclampsia, Placental Insufficiency, and Autism Spectrum Disorder or Developmental Delay. JAMA pediatrics PMID: 25485869