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Researchers Find Link Between Fetal Head Growth and Autism

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Researchers at The National Autism Research Center of Israel at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Soroka University Medical Center have found in utero abnormalities in fetal head growth among children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in childhood.

The findings on the largest and most comprehensive study of this type to date were published in the journal Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

‘Previous studies have found abnormalities in head growth among children with ASD during childhood, but prenatal studies about this phenomenon had inconclusive results. Our findings suggest that abnormalities in head growth that are associated with ASD begin in mid-gestation and that such crucial diagnostic information can be gleaned from prenatal ultrasounds,’ says lead author Professor Idan Menashe of the BGU Department of Public Health, Faculty of Health Sciences.

The researchers compared prenatal ultrasound data, from the second and/or third trimester of 174 children later diagnosed with ASD at the National Autism Research Center of Israel, to the ultrasound data of their unaffected siblings as well as to ultrasound data of typically developed children from the general population.

Three main findings emerged from the study. First, fetuses diagnosed with ASD have narrower heads during mid-gestation compared to the control group, which suggests that fetus growth abnormality is a related ASD trait. Second, ASD-related head growth abnormalities depend on the sex of the fetus, with male and female fetus showing different head shapes during gestation. Lastly, fetal head anomalies appear to be associated with ASD severity.

‘This research is representative of the ongoing collaboration between doctors and researchers at the National Autism Research Center of Israel,’ says Dr Gal Meiri, head of the Pediatric Psychiatry Unit at Soroka and medical director of the Center. ‘This collaboration provides a strong foundation for in-depth studies based on our database, that enables us to identify risk factors and to characterise ASD sub-types.  We hope to be able to personalise care in the future during the diagnosis and perhaps even before an official diagnosis.’

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