WASHINGTON, D.C. — Using data collected in a 20-year-long study on autism, involving more than 115,000 children, researchers are looking into what causes it and how it might be prevented.
“There are certainly strong genetic factors that are at play, but it’s probably not a single factor,” said Dr. Mady Hornig, one of the study’s researchers with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
"Autism" is a word used to describe a broad spectrum of conditions, related to a child’s challenges when it comes to communication and social interaction, among other things. The CDC estimates that in the U.S., 1 in 44 children has been diagnosed with autism.
For Dr. Hornig, the research is personal. Her son is on the autism spectrum.
The study, which included medical data researchers first started collecting back in 1999, involved blood and genetic testing, along with detailed health questionnaires.
What did they notice?
“What I call the “three strikes hypothesis” - the genes, the environment and the timing – together,” Dr. Hornig said.
The hypothesis is that multiple circumstances need to come together to create the conditions that can lead to autism. That includes certain genetic markers and what researchers call ‘environmental conditions’ – specifically, inflammation in the body accompanied by a high fever.
The study found that the timing of that fever was important – if it happened at a very specific time in the pregnancy: the second trimester, when critical neural pathways are developing.
Researchers looked closely at how those fevers in mothers-to-be were treated.
“When the mothers report that they have an infection, whether they have a fever, whether they took something for the fever, or didn’t, and what they took for the fever, how long they took it,” Dr. Hornig said.
Researchers stress it’s important for pregnant women to discuss with their doctors if they ever get a fever.
“Not allowing a fever to continue in a prolonged fashion is an important aspect,” Dr. Hornig said.
In the study, a small subset of mothers took ibuprofen to reduce their fever and researchers noticed something in that.
“Zero - there were zero cases of autism among mothers who had fever during pregnancy, who took ibuprofen,” Dr. Hornig said.
The autism study is ongoing, with researchers continuing to mine the data, in the hopes it can eventually provide more answers to all parents of children with autism.