Rare antibodies associated with autism are unusually common among women who developed diabetes while pregnant with a child who has autism1. The results provide new clues to the link between immune system problems and autism.
Maternal antibodies ordinarily pass through the placenta and help to defend the fetus against pathogens. But some occasionally turn against the fetus and attack proteins in the developing brain. Researchers have found these antibodies in as much as 23 percent of women who have a child with autism2. And prenatal exposure to these antibodies alters brain development and social behavior in mice and monkeys.
Separately, studies have shown that women who develop diabetes while pregnant, a condition called gestational diabetes, are at an increased risk of having a child with autism.
The new study, which appeared 17 June in Autism Research, ties together these two threads of research, says lead investigator Judy Van de Water, professor of internal medicine at the University of California, Davis. She says gestational diabetes may prompt some women to make the autism-linked antibodies.
“Gestational diabetes is an inflammatory condition,” Van de Water says. “And you have to have some sort of inflammatory dysregulation to create autoantibodies.” The details of this dysregulation and its link to autism are yet to be worked out, however.