According to a recent study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) are 59 percent more likely to have a child with autism spectrum disorder than those without PCOS.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome is a fairly common hormonal disorder which affects 1 in 10 women. It is also the leading cause of infertility.
Read: Can I still get pregnant if I have polycystic ovaries?
PCOS is caused by cysts in the ovaries. It can lead to acne, excessive hair growth, weight gain, and ovulation problems.
Lead author of the study, Kyriaki Kosidou, a psychiatrist and researcher at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, told The Huffington Post, “Women with PCOS have increased levels of androgens in their bodies compared to women without PCOS, even during pregnancy.”
These androgens affect the development of the fetus’ brain and nervous system.
The study also found that women with PCOS who are also obese were at higher risk of having children with autism spectrum disorder.
Perhaps this is because obese women have higher levels of androgen thereby making their fetus’ more prone to developing autism.
Study findings: not cause for alarm
Although autism spectrum disorder is more common in male children, babies of mothers with PCOS have the same risk, regardless of gender, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The study was done on all children born between 1984 and 2007 in Sweden by comparing National Patient Register records of ASD to records of mothers with PCOS.
The study authors, keeping in mind that women with PCOS are more likely to undergo fertility treatments, took the use of the reproductive technology into account.
However, the study didn’t conclude absolute risk: it compared children of PCOS mothers to mothers without PCOS, but both groups had children with ASD.
In Sweden, only 1.5 percent of the population were recorded to have ASD, similar to the rates in the United States. So although a 59 percent increase sounds scary, it is still quite low to cause alarm.
Kosidou emphasized that the link between early life androgen exposure and ASD is still unclear. Mothers with PCOS shouldn’t worry that much about their kids’ health.
“While we did observe an increased risk for ASD, it was a modest increase for a relatively rare disorder,” she said. “Chances are that children born to a mother with PCOS will not develop autism.”
Read: Does my child have autism?
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