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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Newborn's Placenta May Predict Autism Risk

Identifying infants with higher odds could improve treatment, researchers say
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The study only predicted risk of autism, however, not actual autism. The researchers will continue to follow the children.

The testing can't be done before delivery, Kliman said. "You need enough placenta [to examine]."

But the test could help spot at-risk children much earlier than is now possible, Kliman suggested. "There is no way [currently] to know at birth that your child might have autism," he said. "If you know you have a child who is at risk for autism at birth, you are ahead of the game." Interventions can begin early, when the brain is more open to change.

How the folds in the placenta relate to autism risk isn't clear, Kliman said. He and others speculated that the abnormalities in the placentas and the brains of the children affected with autism are marked by increased cellular growth, which then leads to the unusual folding. "The heads of children with autism are bigger," he said. Their brains grow rapidly early in life.

"I'd like to see it as a routine test," Kliman said. The test is labor intensive and requires pathology, however, and Kliman estimated it could cost $2,000 or more.

This isn't the first study to link placental abnormalities with autism risk, said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, an advocacy and research group. "However, it is one of the largest studies to confirm this finding," she said.

But more research is needed to confirm the findings, she said.

It is too soon to suggest this as a routine test, said Dr. Daniel Coury, medical director of the group's Autism Treatment Network and chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He praised the study, but also said more research is needed to duplicate the findings.

"Being able to identify those infants at greater risk so we can target our interventions is really big news," he said.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health; the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis; Yale University Reproductive and Placental Research Unit; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The researchers don't hold patents on the procedure or have financial interests in it.

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