Monday 1 July 2019

Maternal polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and autism yet again

Another mash-up post for you today as I bring two papers to the blogging table discussing a topic which has already had quite a bit of airtime on this blog: maternal diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and risk of offspring diagnosis of autism (see here and see here). The papers in question are from Maria Katsigianni and colleagues [1] and Carolyn Cesta and colleagues [2] and, via different experimental means, both papers suggest that women with PCOS have a significantly greater risk of having a child diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

PCOS, in case you didn't know, is a fairly common condition according to the NHS entry. It's characterised by three main features: irregular periods, the presence of high levels of androgens (male hormones) and polycystic ovaries ("ovaries become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs (follicles) that surround the eggs"). Mention of (male) sex hormones in relation to PCOS have led quite a few researchers to suspect a connection between PCOS and autism but another important angle to the diagnosis is a link between PCOS and insulin (the hormone involved in blood sugar control)...

Anyhow, the Katsigianni paper first. This was a systematic review and meta-analysis of the existing peer-reviewed science on the topic of "whether women with PCOS have increased odds of having a child with ASD, while, secondarily, if these women themselves are at high risk of having the disease." Now just before anyone gets shirty with the use of the word 'disease', those are the authors words not mine. I fully go with the idea that autism is not a disease. Their 'boiling down the research literature' efforts yielded 10 studies which included over 30,000 children with autism and some 320,000 "non-ASD children." The results: "Diagnosed PCOS was associated with a 1.66 times increase in the odds of ASD in the offspring" and: "Women with PCOS were 1.78 times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD." Most data on which those findings were based were deemed to be of 'good quality'.

Then to the Cesta study. The primary aim was to "measure, in the general population, the association between maternal PCOS and offspring neuropsychiatric disorders where prenatal androgen levels and/or altered androgen function have been implicated in their etiology." That population was the Sweden, and yet another example of those fantastic Scandinavian population registries being put to good research use. Autism, by the way, wasn't the only label looked at by Cesta et al: "offspring attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and Tourette's disorder and chronic tic disorders (TD/CTD)."

Results: based on detecting some 20,000 PCOS-exposed offspring and 200,000 "unrelated PCOS-unexposed offspring" authors concluded that: "PCOS-exposed offspring had increased risk of being diagnosed with ADHD, ASD, and TD/CTD compared with unrelated PCOS-unexposed offspring." Interestingly Cesta observed that the association between maternal PCOS and autism and ADHD was stronger in girl offspring than boy offspring. They then go on to talk about prenatal androgen exposure "leading to ‘hyper-masculine’ behavioral and cognitive traits" in offspring as being one potential biological mechanism.

What's more to say? Well, despite the whole 'male sex hormone' *link* to autism I'd like to see a lot more investigation looking at biological mechanisms. Going back to the insulin link with PCOS, there is a requirement for further study in light of other findings (see here and see here). Insofar as implications for policy, well, preferential screening for autism in offspring when mum has a diagnosis of PCOS could be indicated. This adds to the growing number of other circumstances where such preferential screening seems to be indicated.

Oh, and there could be other areas of potential investigation to consider too (see here)...


[1] Katsigianni M. et al. Maternal polycystic ovarian syndrome in autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Molecular Psychiatry. 2019. March 13.

[2] Cesta CE. et al. Maternal polycystic ovary syndrome and risk of neuropsychiatric disorders in offspring: prenatal androgen exposure or genetic confounding? Psychol Med. 2019 Mar 12:1-9.


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