Can Stress During Pregnancy Lead to Autism?


Stress during pregnancy has been associated with several conditions including autism spectrum disorder. Researchers at the University of Missouri School of Medicine have assessed a variant of a stress-sensitive gene and exposure to stress during pregnancy among two groups of mothers of children with autism.

More research needed to comprehend the gene-stress relationship

Autism was believed to be largely a genetic disorder but previous research has shown that environmental influences such as stress can contribute to the development of the condition. We know that many mothers who undergo substantial levels of stress do not have children with autism, but others do. To find out the reason, researchers studied a gene associated with stress and found a connection between it and the development of autism with exposure to stress. The mothers were asked about their stress throughout their pregnancy such as the loss of a job, moving or divorce. Their blood was assessed for an alteration of the stress-sensitive gene known as 5-HTTLPR, which regulates the neurotransmitter serotonin in the nervous system. When a variation of the gene appears, the availability of serotonin is altered, leading to an increased reaction to stress.

In both groups, mothers of children with autism who get the variation of the stress-sensitive gene were observed to be undergoing more stress during the end of the second and the beginning of the third trimester of pregnancy, compared to mothers who did not have the altered gene. Even though this was an observational study and future confirmation of this result is needed, it is possible we could, one day, identify women who may be at a higher risk of having a child with autism when exposed to stress. More research is needed to comprehend the mechanism of how this gene-stress relationship works, but hopefully, this could possibly help avoid some cases of autism.

Continuous pressure may put your baby at risk

Some stress throughout pregnancy is normal just as it occurs during other times of life. But if stress gets constant, the impact on you and your baby could be lasting. When you are stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, producing a burst of cortisol and other stress hormones. These are the same hormones surging once you are in danger. They give you a sign to run by sending a blast of fuel to your muscles and making your heart pump faster. In fact, constant stress could change your body’s stress management system, making it overreact and start an inflammatory response. Inflammation, in turn, has been associated with poorer pregnancy health and developmental problems in babies down the road. It is an essential factor for pregnant women to consider particularly if they are facing chronic stress. Women should not feel guilty about stress but they should try to control it as much as they can.

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