Autism Risk Tied to Prenatal Asthma Drug Exposure
But taking beta-agonists during pregnancy also might benefit fetus, researchers say
By Amy Norton
WEDNESDAY, Jan. 6, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Children whose mothers took certain asthma drugs during pregnancy may have a slightly increased risk of autism, a new study suggests.
The study, published online Jan. 6 in Pediatrics, found a connection between autism risk and prenatal exposure to drugs called beta-agonists. They are most often used to control asthma, and include inhaled medications such as albuterol, salmeterol (Serevent) and formoterol (Foradil).
Researchers said the findings do not prove cause and effect, and stressed that women with asthma should not simply abandon their medication during pregnancy.
"Uncontrolled asthma in pregnancy has been associated with poor birth outcomes, such as preterm birth, low birth weight and admission to the neonatal intensive care unit," said lead researcher Nicole Gidaya, of Drexel University, in Philadelphia.
What's more, preterm delivery and low birth weight have been tied to an increased autism risk.
Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development at Duke University, in Durham, N.C., made the same point.
Taking beta-agonists during pregnancy has both potential benefits and potential risks for the developing fetus, said Dawson, who wrote an editorial published with the study.
"It's important for a woman taking these drugs to talk with her physician and make an individual decision based on her unique circumstances," Dawson said.
Researchers are still trying to understand the precise causes of autism spectrum disorders, which affect an estimated one in 68 children in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Beta-agonists come in both short-acting forms -- which are used to treat asthma attacks -- and long-acting forms, which are taken regularly to help prevent attacks. Gidaya said her study did not differentiate between the two.
Scientists generally agree, though, that autism arises from a combination of genetic vulnerability and certain environmental exposures. Many genes have been linked to autism risk, and the list of environmental suspects is growing.
Birth complications -- especially ones that cause oxygen deprivation -- are among them, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks. So are prenatal exposures to certain infections, air pollution and some medications, such as the anti-seizure drug valproic acid, the group said.