The University of Cambridge found a link between this autism risk and PCOS. The study, published in Translational Psychiatry, follows up a 2015 study that connected autism risk with elevated levels of testosterone and other sex steroids during pregnancy. PCOS is associated with higher testosterone levels in affected women.
Healthy women without PCOS may develop an ovarian cyst on occasion, with no effects on her reproductive or endocrine health. But women with PCOS develop many ovarian cysts, which appear to affect her hormone levels. Early signs of PCOS include delayed start to puberty, irregular periods, excess body hair, and a tendency to be overweight.
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In the 2015 study, unborn babies who went on to be diagnosed with autism showed higher levels of testosterone and other sex steroids. The theory is that the brains of unborn babies exposed to too-high testosterone levels then develop the features of autism. Scientists then wondered where these higher levels of sex steroids were originating, and one possibility was from the mother if she has PCOS and if the higher testosterone is able to cross the placenta.
Researchers in this new study compared the data of more than 8,500 women with PCOS and their first-born children, with the data of more than 41,000 women without PCOS. They found that a PCOS diagnosis put a woman's first-born child with a 2.3 percent chance of developing autism, versus the 1.7 percent chance for mothers without PCOS.
A follow-up study also found that women with PCOS were more likely to have autism themselves and that women with autism were more likely to have PCOS - further linking the two conditions together.
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However, though these studies sound very scary for women with PCOS, researchers stress that the autism risk for their children remains very low. Autism is diagnosed in one percent of the population, far below the number of women of reproductive age with PCOS.
"The likelihood is statistically significant but nevertheless still small, in that most women with PCOS won't have a child with autism," said study co-supervisor Carrie Allison, autism screening research director at the University of Cambridge's Autism Research Centre. "But we want to be transparent with this new information."
The most practical application of this research, as scientists suggested in the study's conclusion, is to consider the possibility of screening for one condition given the presence of the other. PCOS can be reversed if caught early, and intervention programs for autism could be started earlier, giving affected children a better start in their social skills.
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