Mothers of children with autism have ‘significantly different’ metabolite levels, scientists say

TROY, N.Y. — The findings of a new study may revolutionize how infant autism-risk is assessed in pregnant mothers. Researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Arizona State University, and the Mayo Clinic report that mothers of children born with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) show significantly different metabolite levels as long as two to five years after giving birth in comparison to women who gave birth to normally developing children.

Study authors analyzed blood samples from 30 mothers who had given birth to a child with autism. They also took samples from 29 mothers with children experiencing typical development. All of the samples came from moms whose children were between two and five years-old already.

The results discovered a number of metabolite differences between the two groups; with researchers separating the inconsistencies into five subgroups of correlated metabolites.

Even though the study collected samples years after the births actually took place, study authors say these initial findings open the door toward many more questions. For example, were metabolite levels abnormal at the time of birth? How about six months before giving birth? If so, metabolite readings may be an effective autism screening method.

A link between autism and eating meat?

Many of the metabolite fluctuations between mothers had to do with low folate, vitamin B12, and carnitine-conjugated molecule levels. Carnitine is usually produced by the human body when eating meats like pork or beef. However, researchers did not note any connection between moms eating more meat and subsequent carnitine levels.

According to study co-author Juergen Hahn, the head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rensselaer, these differences may be a result of how carnitine is metabolized in certain women’s bodies.

“We had multiple metabolites that were associated with the carnitine metabolism,” Hahn says in a university release. “This suggests that carnitine and mothers is something that should be looked at.”

Researchers add it’s quite possible that in the future a maternal blood test could help to establish offspring autism risk.

“A blood test would not be able to tell if your child has autism or not, but it could tell if you’re at a higher risk,” Hahn explains. “And the classification of higher risk, in this case, can actually be significant.”

“Based on these results, we are now conducting a new study of stored blood samples collected during pregnancy, to determine if those metabolites are also different during pregnancy,” comments study co-author James Adams, a President’s Professor in the School of Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, and director of the Autism/Asperger’s Research Program, both at Arizona State University.

The study is published in BMC Pediatrics.