The study titled ‘Polycystic ovary syndrome and autism: A test of the prenatal sex steroid theory’ was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry on August 01.
In a 2015 study, the research team found children with autism had elevated levels of ‘sex steroid’ hormones before they were born. One possible theory the researchers considered was that the child’s brain development was affected by early life androgen exposure. This, in turn, was thought to be a result of the mother having elevated levels of testosterone.
“This new research is helping us understand the effects of testosterone on the developing foetal brain and on the child’s later behaviour and mind,” said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre, who supervised the research.
“These hormonal effects are not necessarily independent of genetic factors, as a mother or her baby may have higher levels of the hormone for genetic reasons, and testosterone can affect how genes function.”
Using data sourced from the National Health Service, the team examined the health records of nearly 8,600 women with PCOS and their first-born children.
Data on over 41,100 women without PCOS were used for comparison while factors like mental health of the mother and pregnancy complications were also taken into account.
The findings revealed women with PCOS had a 2.3 per cent chance of having a child with autism compared to mothers without PCOS who had a 1.7 per cent chance.
The team conducted two more studies which strongly suggested a link between the aforementioned conditions, both having elevated sex steroid hormone levels in common. Women with autism were found to be at higher risk of PCOS while women with PCOS were also more likely to have autism.
The team believed children born to women with PCOS should be monitored for any potential symptoms related to autism spectrum disorder.
“We need to think about the practical steps we can put in place to support women with PCOS as they go through their pregnancies,” said Dr Carrie Allison who co-supervised the research.
While statistically significant, she did assure the likelihood of PCOS patients giving birth to a child with autism was small. In other words, Dr Allison said “most women with PCOS won’t have a child with autism, but we want to be transparent with this new information.”
Source: Medical Daily