Autism May Someday Be Detected In The Womb

Doctors have discovered that high levels of testosterone in the womb may increase the risk of autism, raising the possibility of a prenatal test for the condition. But is testing for autism ethical?

New research published today from Cambridge University reports that high levels of testosterone in the amniotic fluid of pregnant woman are linked to the development of autism traits by the age of eight in a study of 235 children from birth. The findings mean that it may be possible to detect autism through an amniocentesis, like Down Syndrome.

But doctors say that now is the time to start debating if having a prenatal test for autism would be desirable, even if it was scientifically possible. "There is a test for Down's syndrome and that is legal and parents exercise their right to choose termination, but autism is often linked with talent. It is a different kind of condition," said lead researcher Professor Simon Baron-Cohen in The Guardian.

Autism is a developmental disability that involves a biological abnormality in the brain, but it is not a learning disability or a mental health problem. The test would not be able to identify whether a child would be born with high-functioning autism that can be associated with an increased ability in certain areas like math or music or on the low end of the spectrum with disabilities so extreme they cannot communicate. But Baron-Cohen says, ethically the same issues apply wherever the person is on that spectrum.

A test for autism means that parents may choose to terminate a pregnancy if they discover their child may develop the condition, but it could also lead to new treatments. There are drugs that block testosterone that could theoretically be given in the womb, but Baron-Cohen says even developing a treatment for autism is controversial. "What would we lose if children with autistic spectrum disorder were eliminated from the population?" he asked.

Even if there was a way to treat autism, there is still the question of whether it is a naturally occurring condition or one caused by environmental factors. Though autism rates have risen dramatically in recent years, there is still debate over whether the "autism epidemic" is due to increased awareness and diagnosis or an actual increase in autism cases. According to Babble, in a new study in California, where autism rates have increased more than 500 percent in 10 years, researchers determined that the increase in autism is likely due to external factors and are investigating the effects of metals, pesticides and infectious agents on neurodevelopment. This may confirm what many have suspected, that thought there are genetic predisposition to autism, environmental factors are at work as well.

New Research Brings Autism Screening Closer To Reality [The Guardian]
New Study Says Autism is Environmental [Babble]