Another Possible Factor in Autism Risk

Gestational diabetes in mother may be tied to autism risk in baby

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Many factors during pregnancy can affect a baby's development. Among those factors may be gestational diabetes, which could affect your baby's neurological development.

A new study found that babies of mothers who had gestational diabetes (GDM) had an increased risk of autism (ASD). Babies of mothers who had type 2 diabetes, however, did not have an increased risk.

Anny H. Xiang, PhD, of Kaiser Permanente Southern California, led this study.

“Whether the ASD risk associated with GDM diagnosed earlier than 26 weeks was due to abnormal glucose levels prior to GDM diagnosis and/or suboptimal glucose control after GDM diagnosis requires further investigation," Dr. Xiang and team wrote. "Because this is an observational study, no causal inferences can be drawn. However, our results suggest that early screening for ASD in offspring of women with GDM diagnosed by 26 weeks’ gestation may be warranted. Our results also suggest that screening for GDM and control of glucose levels early in pregnancy may be important in reducing ASD risk for offspring."

Dr. Xiang and colleagues stressed that they were not saying gestational diabetes causes autism — only that there was a link between the two, a point reinforced by board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist Andre F. Hall, MD.

"The connection between diabetes and autism is theorized as the cause of autism is unknown," Dr. Hall, of Birth and Women's Care in Fayetteville, NC, told dailyRx News. "As such, the association between autism and anything is theorized."

Diabetes is a disease in which the body does not produce enough insulin (type 1) or the cells are resistant to insulin’s effects (type 2). Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar.

Gestational diabetes only occurs during pregnancy. Hormones secreted by the placenta may block the action of insulin in the mother, creating insulin resistance. As a result, sugar builds up in the mother’s bloodstream and may affect the mother and child.

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects children’s social functioning, communication and behaviors.

Dr. Xiang and colleagues studied more than 320,000 children born between 1999 and 2009 at Kaiser Permanente Southern California hospitals. This study ended in 2012.

Babies of women who were diagnosed with gestational diabetes by the 26th week of the pregnancy had a raised risk of autism, Dr. Xiang and team found. Babies of mothers who were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes prior to pregnancy did not have an increased risk of autism.

Only a small number of children develop autism. Women are routinely screened for gestational diabetes during pregnancy. Treatment is available if gestational diabetes is found.

"Gestational diabetes, due to the excess blood glucose levels, creates problems with overall development and organ development," Dr. Hall said. "Diabetes in pregnancy increases the risks of spinal cord defects, cardiac defects, and unexplained fetal demise at term. I don't believe we have enough information to link diabetes to autism and will need additional studies."

This study was published April 14 in JAMA.

Kaiser Permanente Southern California Direct Community Benefit Funds funded this research. Dr. Xiang and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
April 13, 2015
Last Updated:
April 14, 2015