Can we identify potentially modifiable risk factors in the development of autism?

Date posted: 
Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a brain-based disorder characterized by impaired social communication and repetitive or stereotypic behaviors that begin before three years of age. The prevalence of autism in the United States is about 1 in 88 children, but the prevalence in Canada is poorly defined.

Autism results from the interplay of genetic and environmental influences that occur during critical developmental windows, but only a few studies have tested whether exposures to modifiable risk factors, such as airborne pollutants and prescription drug exposures, are associated with the development of autism. Moreover, there are no established representative, population-based cohorts in North America to test or confirm putative risk factors for the development of autism.

Data access has been approved for an extensive research project designed to improve our understanding of the developmental origins of ASD by examining the association between a number of exposures during fetal brain development and a diagnosis of ASD.

“The key to both understanding how autism develops and preventing autism is to identify and confirm modifiable risk factors,” says Dr Gillian Hanley, Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia, who is among a group of researchers involved in the project. “There are likely to be many risk factors because autism represents an array of behaviors and deficits that exist on a continuum.”

The project will investigate several potentially modifiable risk factors for autism including: maternal depression; maternal use of serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants and other psychotropic medicines; maternal use of anticonvulsant medicines; interventions during labour and delivery; preterm birth; and air pollution. The research will also examine the extent to which different developmental trajectories may modify the impact of ASD.

“While we do not expect to explain the cause of autism in this research project, we do anticipate that this work could shed light on the underlying mechanism of ASD development and help clinicians, health policy and decision makers and patients understand risk factors for this developmental disorder,” says Dr. Hanley

PopData will link researcher-collected air pollution data with data from the BC Ministry of Health, BC Vital Statistics Agency, BC Ministry of Education, Statistics Canada, the Human Early Learning Partnership, Perinatal Services BC and BC Autism Assessment Network.

The study is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Page last revised: September 7, 2016