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Lifestyle Risk Factors

A range of lifestyle factors during pregnancy may influence risk of ASD. Active areas of interest include prenatal exposure to environmental toxicants, personal care products, and maternal diet and supplement use. In addition to the funded projects listed below, our team is developing new projects aimed at investigating additional environmental chemicals, exposure mixtures, and interactions between environmental exposures and maternal diet.

Prenatal Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Levels and Risk of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Principle Investigator: Kristen Lyall, Sc.D.
Funder: Department of Defense

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which include omega 3 fatty acids, are fats obtained from the diet that play key roles in early fetal brain development. It is not known whether levels of these crucial fats during pregnancy influence risk of ASD, though preliminary work found evidence to indicate a possible association. This project more rigorously examines the relationship between PUFAs and ASD by using levels of PUFAs measured in maternal blood samples collected during pregnancy, in a larger study size. Using existing data and samples from programs in California, the goals of this project are to determine whether prenatal levels of PUFAs, and in a subgroup, PUFAs measured in newborn blood spots, differ between children with ASD and those without ASD. This study also explores whether the relationship between PUFAs and ASD differs in certain subgroups, such as by race/ethnicity, preterm birth, or child gender.

Antimicrobial Agent Exposure, Fetal Androgens and ASD Risk

Principal Investigator: Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D.
Funder: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

This project studies whether prenatal exposure to commonly used antimicrobial agents added to personal care products like soaps and toothpaste might be associated with increases in ASD risk. We will explore whether these exposures influence ASD outcomes by changing the amount or action of testosterone the developing fetus is exposed to by examining biomarkers of exposure in urine collected during pregnancy from 213 mothers and correlating these biomarkers with data from clinical exams of these mothers' children at 12 and 36 months of age. The study has the potential to identify an avoidable environmental risk factor for ASD and provide support for a mechanism that could explain the observed ASD gender ratio.

Folic Acid Prevention Pathways for ASD in High Risk Families

Principal Investigator: Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D./ Rebecca Schmidt, Ph.D. (University of California at Davis)
Funder: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Maternal folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, is one of the first modifiable factors identified with the potential to reduce occurrence of autism spectrum disorders by 40% if taken near conception. This project focuses on younger siblings within high-risk families to provide a better understanding of how strongly folic acid and other B-vitamins are associated with reduced autism risk, when and at what levels intake is most associated with reduced risk, how the folate association differs based on genetic susceptibility, and whether maternal folic acid intake alters DNA methylation profiles in ways that could decrease ASD risk. This work has critical implications for public health recommendations on how to prevent future cases of ASD, particularly for families already affected by autism.