Women With Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Are More Likely to Have a Child With Autism

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Researchers have worked for years to pinpoint exactly what causes autism. They’ve identified several risk factors, but there seems to be no single explanation for the disorder. A new study, however, has found another possible contributing factor. This time, researchers have linked autism spectrum disorders with polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. This new study suggest that women with PCOS are more likely to have a child with autism. It’s very preliminary research, but it’s an important study nonetheless.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge found a higher rate of autism in children born to women with polycystic ovary syndrome.

Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a hormonal disorder that affects approximately one in ten women. It’s caused by elevated levels of testosterone. Women with PCOS frequently suffer from fluid-filled cysts on their ovaries, and it can affect the onset of puberty, menstruation, and even fertility.

The research team responsible for this particular study previously published data that showed kids with ASD’s have elevated levels of some sex hormones, including testosterone. They wanted to explore where these elevated levels of hormones originated. They theorized that higher testosterone levels in the mother could impact how much of the hormone passed through the placenta to the fetus.

The research team used anonymous data from the GP health database to test their theory.

They looked at health records from 8.588 women with PCOS and their firstborn children. They compared them to a group of 41,127 women without PCOS. Even after accounting for other factors (maternal mental health and pregnancy complications, for instance), they made an interesting discovery. The group of women with PCOS had a 2.3% chance of having a child with an autism spectrum disorder. The non-PCOS group had a 1.7% chance. The same data also showed that women with PCOS were more like to have autism themselves. This suggests that these two conditions are indeed linked.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre, supervised the research. Baron-Cohen says, “This new research is helping us understand the effects of testosterone on the developing fetal brain, and on the child’s later behaviour and mind. These hormonal effects are not necessarily independent of genetic factors, as a mother or her baby may have higher levels of the hormone for genetic reasons, and testosterone can affect how genes function.”

The research into the link between polycystic ovary syndrome and ASD is important for so many reasons. Hopefully, researchers continue to study the link, so we can better understand both conditions.

(Image: iStock/O_Lypa)