Gestational weight gain associated with increased autism risk for children

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects approximately 1% globally. ASD refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by impaired social interaction, impaired communication, and repetitive behaviors. As autism is a spectrum disorder, every individual with autism has a unique set of strengths and challenges. The manner in which individuals with autism think, problem-solve, and learn can range from incredibly skilled to severely challenged. While some individuals with ASD may need lifelong support, others may live completely independently. 


Signs of autism can appear as early as 18 months, but most often by ages 2 or 3. Some associated ASD behaviors include not babbling by 12 months, not producing words by 16 months, not making eye contact, lining up toys or objects excessively, not wanting to be cuddled, or not playing with others. The signs become more obvious as the child grows older, when they have difficulty initiating conversations, difficulty interacting with others, or when they express discomfort with changes in routine. 


Autism is mostly genetic in origin, but there is increasing evidence that preterm exposures for mother and baby add to the risk. This is because the baby’s earliest environment is most critical. With the fetal brain producing 250,000 neurons every minute during pregnancy, experiences that interfere with development can affect the brain in lasting ways. 

A recent study by Healio suggests that increased gestational weight gain can result in higher risk of ASD among offspring. The study was a meta-analysis, and consolidated the findings of five cohort studies and four case control studies. The cohort study findings state that both excessive and inadequate weight gain during pregnancy increase likelihood of autism, whereas the case control study findings state that only excessive weight gain increases likelihood of autism. While there were inconsistencies across both studies regarding the correlations, the results call for the need for further research to discover the underlying mechanisms involved.


Currently, there is evidence to suggest that a child’s leptin signaling can result in adverse neurological conditions. Leptin is a hormone released from adipose tissues to balance energy expenditure and inhibit hunger. It plays a significant role regulating brain development and managing the neuroendocrine system, and has receptors concentrated in the cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus of the brain. Leptin is also largely responsible for regulating the reproductive system, the immune system, and bone development. 


Leptin builds to high levels for individuals with rapid weight gain. This is because high BMI results in reduced sensitivity to leptin, and there is an increasing need for the hormone to attain feelings of satiety. In a recent NCBI study that followed 822 children, results show that children who had accelerated weight gain or had higher plasma leptin levels at birth had an increased ASD risk. A second study, included in the International Archives of Translational Medicine, had similar findings. Researchers investigated the effects of diverse hormones in children and found that leptin was significantly higher in children with autism than in healthy control children. With consideration of the two aforementioned studies, leptin could potentially be used as a biomarker for ASD to attain an early diagnosis and start early intervention. 


The biggest takeaway from all this information is that there is a lot yet to discover about ASD, and the impact of pre-term exposures such as weight gain. This can be overwhelming during a pregnancy, as there are already quite enough do’s and don’ts for the health and safety of you and your child. Talk to your health care professional about how much weight you should gain during your pregnancy to regularly track your progress. However, also ensure you’re being good to yourself in the process and taking care of your mental health by eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking your prenatal vitamins. If you’re feeling worried, sad, or nervous, talk to someone about it, and know when to reach out for help. 


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