Higher oestrogen levels in the womb linked with autism

A recent study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, has suggested that elevated levels of oestrogen during pregnancy is linked to the development of autism spectrum disorder in the foetus.

The study, which was conducted by scientists at the University of Cambridge and the State Serum Institute in Denmark, used amniotic fluid samples from the Danish biobank to identify 98 males diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder along with 177 male controls. The samples were then assayed for prenatal levels of oestradiol, oestriol, oestrone, and oestrone sulphate, using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectroscopy. Results showed that the four oestrogens were all significantly higher, on average, in the amniotic fluid samples of the 98 foetuses that developed autism, compared with controls.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, who led this study, said: ‘This new finding supports the idea that increased prenatal sex steroid hormones are one of the potential causes for the condition. Genetics is well established as another, and these hormones likely interact with genetic factors to affect the developing foetal brain.’

Boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. This new research supports earlier work in 2015 by the same team, which showed an association with higher uterine concentrations of prenatal androgen and the development of autism spectrum disorder in boys. Interestingly, the new data show that high levels of oestrogen during pregnancy are even more predictive of autism than elevated levels of prenatal androgen.

Professor Baren-Cohen warned that the results were not intended to be used to screen for autism spectrum disorder: ‘we are interested in understanding autism, not preventing it,” he said.

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