Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition that can lead to a myriad of symptoms, including ovarian cysts and excess body hair. Now, research suggests that women with PCOS are also at a higher risk of having a baby with autism.
PCOS affects about one in 10 women and is caused by elevated testosterone levels. An analysis of government data in the U.K. found a link between mothers who had the condition and their likelihood of giving birth to a child with autism. The team of researchers from Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre stressed that while the chance of having a baby with autism is still extremely low, this finding could give new insight into how autism develops. The findings were published on Wednesday in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
“This is an important piece of new evidence for the theory that autism is not only caused by genes but also by prenatal sex steroid hormones such as testosterone,” one of the researchers, Adriana Cherskov, said in a statement.
The Cambridge team previously published research in 2015 showing that before birth, autistic children have elevated levels of certain hormones, including testosterone. The researchers wanted to learn more about where these high levels of sex hormones were coming from, one possible source being the mother.
The scientists theorized that some of the hormones might cross the placenta during pregnancy and change the baby’s brain development. Higher levels of testosterone in mothers, as is the case in women with PCOS, could lead to elevated levels in their unborn babies.
“Testosterone can affect how genes function,” Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre, who supervised the research, said in a statement.
The study looked at 8,588 women with PCOS and their first-born children, compared to a group of 41,127 women without PCOS. The researchers found that women with PCOS had a 2.3 percent chance of having a child with autism, compared with the 1.7 percent chance for mothers without the condition.
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Some people with autism also have learning difficulties and delayed language. Diagnosis occurs in just 1 percent of the population.
The chance of having a child with autism is still extremely low, even among women with PCOS, but finding this link provides a clue in understanding the development of autism.
“The likelihood is statistically significant but nevertheless still small, in that most women with PCOS won’t have a child with autism, but we want to be transparent with this new information,” Dr. Carrie Allison, who co-supervised the research, said in a statement.